After years of misogyny, racism and threats, progressive women are in charge in Michigan

The paintings lining the walls of the Michigan Capitol tell a story of power, of the primarily white men who — year after year, decade after decade — have dominated the state’s political landscape.

There are the exceptions: The portrait of Eva McCall Hamilton, a suffragist from Grand Rapids who became the first woman elected to the Michigan Legislature in 1920, hangs in the Senate chamber. William Webb Ferguson, who in 1893 became the first African American elected to the Legislature, has his portrait in the Capitol, as does the first woman to become Michigan’s governor, Jennifer Granholm.

But, for the most part, the faces depicting Michigan’s legislative history in the state’s corridors of power are a sea of white men — a trend that continues to be seen in state legislatures across the country.

That, however, is changing in Michigan. And when the state’s 102nd Legislature convened for the first time last week, its makeup changed dramatically.

After a 2018 constitutional amendment led to partisan legislators — namely the Republicans who had long held power in Michigan — no longer controlling the decennial redistricting process, a record number of people voted in the state’s midterm election.

Fueled, in part, by a deep anger at the U.S. Supreme Court ending the nearly 50-year-old right to abortion nationwide and lingering concerns about the pro-Trump Jan. 6, 2021, attempted coup in Washington, D.C., some 4.4 million Michiganders cast their ballots in November’s historic election that resulted in Democrats ousting Republicans from their long held seats of power.

Now, for the first time since 1984, Democrats have a trifecta in state government — control of Michigan’s governorship, House and Senate. Democrats also maintained control of all top executive posts.

In addition to Democrats having a two-seat majority in both chambers, women, for the first time in the state’s history, make up the majority of the Democratic caucuses in the Michigan House and Senate.

“It’s phenomenal,” said state Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor). “It shows how many of us ran and how many of us won. It shows that something resonated with the voters in our messaging and our ability potentially to be able to carry forth policies that can uplift everybody. I think it gives us the opportunity to really center things in equity and justice. Despite losing Black lawmakers, the legislature is really beginning to look a lot more like Michigan. I think in many ways we can say we are a representative government.”

Following decades of right-wing policies, from the anti-union Right to Work legislation signed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to bills that attacked access to abortion and inaction over gun reform, this transformation in state government is poised to usher in increasingly progressive policies centered on reproductive health and access to health care, workers’ rights, expanding the earned income credit, affordable childcare, and pay equity, elected officials and political experts said.

And, after Lansing has been permeated by misogyny, systemic racism, sexual harassment and violent threats, lawmakers and political experts are posing, and answering, a question with optimism: Will there be a shift away from a culture steeped in sexism and bigotry?

“God, I hope so,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s second female governor in history who has faced militia members plotting to kidnap and kill her in addition to an onslaught of death threats, verbal abuse, constituents enraged over her pandemic health policies waving signs comparing her to Hitler, and a seemingly unending list of other harassment during her first term in office.

“Yeah, I think so. I hope so. But we can’t assume, right? We’ve got to continue to elevate the conversation and highlight when people are wrong and help educate them so they can do better. Talk to others who are well-meaning but maybe have old fashioned notions of what’s acceptable. I think there are good people out there that want to learn, and we’ve got to take the opportunity to make sure that we help make everyone better.”

A record number of women in state legislatures

Women lawmakers, the majority of them Democrats, constitute about 40% of the new Michigan Legislature — the 14th highest number of women in a state legislature in the country and more than double the percentage in 2016, when women made up about 19.6% of the Michigan House and Senate.

In the Senate, there are 12 Democrats and three Republicans who are women. In the House, 32 Democrats and 12 Republicans who are women are in office this term. And Rep. Emily Dievendorf (D-Lansing) is the first openly nonbinary lawmaker to serve in Michigan.

The new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate join the three Democratic women who continue to helm the state: Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. Whitmer, Nessel and Benson soundly defeated their Republican opponents in November: gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno and secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo, respectively.

The Republicans were all endorsed by former President Donald Trump, were steadfast election deniers who perpetuated the lie that the 2020 election was stolen and ardently opposed abortion rights.

After November’s full Democratic takeover, progressive women in the 102nd Legislature wield immense power in the state. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) is the first woman to be Senate majority leader, Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) is the first openly bisexual speaker pro tempore, Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) is the first Black woman to chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Twp.) chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

Now, these women, among others, are poised to try and dismantle the web of misogyny and racism that has long ensnared Lansing.

“When the culture is overwhelmingly male-dominated, it impacts everything,” Anthony said. “It impacts the issues that are elevated; it impacts the inclusion of new and fresh ideas. When I walk into my new office, the walls are lined with people who don’t look like me. They’re all men, with the exception of one Appropriations chair that was a woman. But nothing in the Capitol screams inclusion.”

Michigan isn’t alone in the rise in the number of women lawmakers. The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey reported there are a record number of women serving in state legislatures in 2023. Since 1971, the number of women serving in state legislatures has more than quintupled; women now hold 32.6% — or 2,404 seats — of 7,383 state legislature seats nationwide.

Nevada has the greatest percentage of women in its state legislature, with women making up just over 60% of it, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Colorado comes in second with 51% and then Arizona with 47.8%. West Virginia, Tennessee and South Carolina, meanwhile, have the fewest — 11.9%, 14.4% and 14.7%, respectively.

There is a strong partisan gap. Of the 2,404 seats now held by women nationwide, 1,581 are Democrats and 802 are Republicans. Christina Polizzi, communications director at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), said that persistent gap is not a surprise.

“Democrats almost always have double the number of women running year after year after year,” said Polizzi, whose organization works to elect Democrats to state legislatures across the country. “The reality is Democrats do a better job of recruiting women and recruiting people of color. On the Republican side, they haven’t been able to catch up with us, and that’s because if you look at the actual policies they support, they’re not a party that factors in women or people of color in their legislative priorities.

This increase in women lawmakers stemming from the 2022 midterm elections can largely be attributed to candidates and voters backing abortion rights — such as with Michigan’s Proposal 3 that passed with a 13-point margin and enshrines abortion and other reproductive rights in the state Constitution — after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, elected officials and political experts said.

“When you look at the numbers on this [the election] and where the Democrats won where no one expected them to, I think there were a lot of voters, and especially women voters, that, when they were casting their ballot, said, ‘I don’t want any politician, whether they’re in Washington, D.C., or whether they’re in Lansing, telling me what I can and can’t do with my own body, especially when you’re talking about things that have been legal for women in the state and in this country for nearly 50 years,” said Nessel, the second female AG in Michigan history and the first openly gay top elected official who has long championed abortion rights.

Additionally, experts said concerns over attacks on democracy by right-wing politicians and candidates who refused to let go of the lie that Trump won the 2020 election brought people out to vote for more progressive candidates. Nationwide, anti-democratic candidates — those who perpetuated falsehoods about the 2020 election or even worked to overturn it — were largely defeated in November’s midterm.

“Definitely what happened with Roe v. Wade was a motivator,” said Jean Sinzdak, the associate director at the Center for American Women and Politics. “It was definitely motivating for a lot of women, especially women on the left.

“Some other things we saw was a focus on democracy and erosion in democracy that played a role in people coming out,” Sinzdak continued.

Campaigns marred by sexism, attacks on LGBTQ+ people

For the first time in Michigan’s history, the two major-party candidates running for governor last year were women.

One of five women-only gubernatorial races in the country in the November election, and one of just nine such contests in the country’s history, the election between Whitmer and Dixon had the potential to elevate women in politics. But instead, the battle was marred by misogyny and attacks on the LGBTQ+ community from Dixon, some lawmakers and experts said.

“They certainly chose the wrong woman,” said Gilda Jacobs, who last year stepped down as president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) after previously serving as a Democrat in the Michigan House from 1999 to 2002 and the state Senate from 2003 through 2010.

“She was so extreme,” Jacobs continued. “Women in the Republican Party couldn’t vote for her.”

Even a Michigan GOP memo written after the election blamed Dixon for the party’s wipeout, arguing her lackluster fundraising and decision to wage a culture war campaign cost Republicans up and down the ballot.

Dixon, as well as DePerno and Karamo, significantly deviated from Republican voters in Michigan when it came to abortion. While 76% of Michiganders said they opposed the state’s 1931 law that criminalizes abortion care, the Republicans running for governor, attorney general and secretary of state did not support any access to abortion, including for those who have been raped or are the victims of incest.

Now notoriously, Dixon was asked during the campaign if a 14-year-old raped by her uncle should be forced to have the baby. Her answer? Yes.

Meanwhile, Karamo, who is now running to be the chair of the Michigan Republican Party, called abortion “child sacrifice” — a term deeply entrenched in the QAnon conspiracy theory to which Karamo is connected. During his campaign, DePerno, who also is running for state GOP chair, also backed the 1931 law and said Plan B should be banned immediately (after asking what Plan B is).

Transphobia and homophobia also dominated much of Republicans’ campaigns, with, for example, Dixon and DePerno repeatedly attacking drag queens. Karamo, who explained that she entered politics “to fight against abortion,” said in her “It’s Solid Food” podcast that the feminist movement started because women turned to “ungodliness.” She also said efforts to teach about LGBTQ+ issues are “Satan … trying to get children when they’re small.”

While Geiss said “it was a step forward for women that, in general, we had so many women running for higher office, I think it becomes problematic when some of the women running are — well, imagine Phyllis Schlafly.”

Starting in the 1970s, Schlafly led right-wing campaigns against abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment and was vociferously opposed to feminism.

In other words, Geiss said, there were Republicans, like Dixon, who were “willing to uphold the patriarchal issues that some women get to benefit from, systems that by and large were created by and for the advancement of men, and by extension those men’s wives or daughters.”

Not everyone agrees. Anthony, for example, emphasized that women “are not a monolith.”

“When [women] are sharing the gubernatorial stage to discuss ideas, it’s a positive thing,” she said. “I’m going to be rooting for women of all political backgrounds and personal backgrounds, and I think that’s healthy. It’s a beautiful thing to see women competing.”

The red wave that never came

The anger over abortion rights being taken away, among concerns about the state of democracy, tanked a string of pundits’ theories that the country was about to be flooded by a red wave — that Republicans would sweep the election because of a dragging economy and because the president’s party, in this case, the Democrats, typically lose seats in midterm elections.

“The red wave absolutely did not appear,” Polizzi said. “If you look at a place like Michigan, what this election showed was abortion rights was an incredibly important issue, and, particularly in Michigan, Democrats did not run away from that issue. If Michigan Republicans were to gain a trifecta or maintain control in the legislature, abortion rights would be at risk.”

While Republicans claimed some victories nationwide in the midterms, Democrats flipped legislative chambers across the country and landed trifectas in Michigan and Minnesota. No state legislature flipped from blue to red. A party in power hasn’t achieved that — keeping the opposite party from flipping a single legislature — in a midterm election since 1932, according to the DLCC.

This red wave narrative, often voiced by male pundits, was frustrating but not unexpected, Democratic elected officials and abortion advocates said.

Nicole Wells Stallworth, executive director at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, pointed out that pundits routinely seemed to ignore the fact that abortion is an economic issue and instead pushed the idea that abortion exists in a silo separate from the economy — ignoring the case made by Whitmer, Democrats and abortion rights advocates.

“We saw the cost of living really shoot up during the election, and people had a real true understanding of what it means to consider growing your family in the midst of all these other economic decisions they have to make,” Wells Stallworth said. “I think voters in Michigan pushed back on that, and they showed how much they understand that the issue of abortion is also an economic one. It boils down to a decision as to whether or not you’re going to expand your family, if you’re able to amass big medical debt due to whatever complications you may have.”

I think the results would tell you that some of those early polls weren’t actually listening to the general public the way we were.

– Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Plus, the media are often guilty of framing elections in horse race terms to pique readers’ interest, a number of elected officials said.

“I think that having a horse race where these elections could go either way is just a much more interesting story than a story that the Democrats are going to run away with this,” Nessel said. “I think I saw that in my own race: They wanted to make this an upset in the making, even though, at the end of the day, I won by nearly 9 points.”

Despite a wave of narratives that said otherwise, Whitmer said she was confident during the election that abortion rights would bring a surge of voters to the polls, including historically conservative voters who were now backing her because of the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe. That confidence in large part came fromround tables that she held across the state, at which voters shared their opinions about abortion.

One woman, for example, who came “from a very conservative small town in Michigan, very conservative family” and was “absolutely anti-choice” said during a roundtable that she became pregnant in her teens and chose to keep the baby, Whitmer said.

“But that choice was hers,” the governor said. “And so she’s like, ‘I’m knocking on doors for you. I’ve never even voted, or I haven’t voted recently, but when I did vote, I was always Republican. But I’m out knocking doors for you.’ She said this to me, and that was really where I started to appreciate that this was really an issue so many people are passionate about and feel strongly about and it’s personal.”

It was largely that encounter that made Whitmer question the pundits and polls that dismissed the role of abortion in the election.

“As I see the polling, I was wondering, is it accurate?” Whitmer said. “… I think the results would tell you that some of those early polls weren’t actually listening to the general public the way we were.”

The Democratic governor even made a point to bring up reproductive rights in early June — before the Supreme Court overturned Roe — at the Mackinac Policy Conference. Sponsored by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, the confab is populated with powerful business leaders, lawmakers and lobbyists, many of whom are men.

“As we chase our collective success, we must also be a state where women have bodily autonomy and equal rights,” Whitmer told the crowd — which, somewhat surprisingly, gave her a standing ovation.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks to the crowd gathered outside the Michigan Capitol in Lansing for a protest against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022. | Photo by Andrew Roth

And there were other signs that a progressive pink wave was building in Michigan.

State Rep. Carol Glanville (D-Walker) and Polizzi said they immediately suspected there was something faulty with the red wave narrative after Glanville won her special election in May and became the first Democrat in three decades to represent West Michigan’s once heavily red 74th District — a district where Trump had won by 16 points in 2020.

Glanville’s victory came after her Republican opponent, Robert Regan, said he tells his daughters that “if rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it.” He also called the war in Ukraine a “fake war just like the fake [COVID] pandemic” and shared a meme saying that feminism is a “Jewish program to degrade and subjugate white men.”

Glanville went on to defeat Republican Mike Milanowski in November’s race for the 84th House District in West Michigan.

“I had people tell me, ‘You were the canary in the coal mine,’” Glanville said. “People pointed to my special election and said, ‘We can do this; we can win.’ It lit a fire for Democrats.

“I think it helped others to be motivated,” Glanville continued. “It was something that resonated with a lot of folks.”

Another moment came in April when state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) gave a viral speech on the Senate floor condemning Republicans for attacks against LGBTQ+ individuals and allies like her. Overnight, she caught the attention of President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the national media and became a progressive powerhouse who raised millions of dollars to help flip the Senate.

“What we did — and I’m proud to be a part of it — is really just ripping the top layer of the politics of hate and anger,” said McMorrow.

Ultimately, Michigan Democrats’ victories up and down the ballot, “should be a blueprint” for the party nationwide that want to dismantle the hold that Republicans have had on state legislatures for decades, McMorrow said.

I think people are tired of being tired and tired of being angry. This craven desire to want to keep people angry and continually try to find a new thing to make people angry — people are over it.

– State Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak)

“What I recognize in most voters across the state, even if you have different political persuasions, is people are tired of 2020 and want to move forward,” she said. “We went through a global pandemic, and it sucked to have lockdown, school closures. It was horrible, and people want to move forward. I think people are tired of being tired and tired of being angry. This craven desire to want to keep people angry and continually try to find a new thing to make people angry — people are over it.”

Others interviewed by the Advance expressed similar sentiments, saying voters, including Republican-leaning ones, backed candidates who didn’t focus on anger over COVID-19 pandemic health policies or abortion.

“Michigan is really interesting because not only did you have the 1931 law [that banned abortion] hanging in the balance but you had these legislators that were openly hostile to our democracy,” Polizzi said. “And you have a Republican Party that has strong ties to militia groups. Republicans didn’t have any concrete plan to address any economic issues; they only had chaos to offer and voters saw through that.”

Elected officials and experts interviewed by the Advance said it’s also noteworthy that the definitive victories from Whitmer, Nessel and Benson in November’s election followed tumultuous first terms filled with a global pandemic, armed right-wing protesters enraged over Whitmer’s COVID-19 policies — which researchers documented saved thousands of lives — storming the state Capitol, an endless barrage of death threats against them and their families (Whitmer recently said her husband retired from his dental practice years earlier than expected because of threats), and militia members being convicted for plotting to kidnap and assassinate the governor.

In the wake of what has amounted to a relentless right-wing war against the state’s top Democrats, the majority of Michigan voters made a clear statement in the midterm that they largely do not back politicians who centered their campaigns on animosity towards the governor, attorney general and secretary of state — and that includes more than a few Republicans.

An analysis by state pollster Ed Sarpolous of Target-Insyght, a Lansing-based public opinion firm, found that about 27,000 Republicans cast their ballots for Whitmer and some 216,000 Republican-leaning independent voters did not go to the polls in an election dominated on the right by candidates who spent much of their campaigns promoting the never-ending lie that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, as well as attacking transgender youth and abortion rights.

“If you look at the actual policies Republicans support, they’re not a party that factors in women or people of color in their legislative priorities,” Polizzi said. “When you have one party talking about banning the ability to get health care and working to legislate when people can start a family or grow their family, that’s an issue that women were turning out in droves over. That’s a huge thing that impacted our victories.”

An end to the old boys’ club

The road to Democrats’ current control in Lansing, and the rise of women in power, has been a long and winding one.

When Jacobs won her seat in the House in 1999, “there was a very, very, very strong old boys’ network,” she said. The former MLPP president served several years alongside Whitmer, who notched 14 years in the Legislature before ascending to the governorship.

But, nearly a quarter of a century ago, Jacobs began to see cracks in men’s once-formidable walls of power.

During her tenure, Jacobs became the Legislature’s first-ever female floor leader. Dianne Byrum, currently the outgoing chair of the Michigan State University Board of Trustees, served as the Michigan House minority leader and the first woman to head a caucus in the state Capitol; Shirley Johnson, a Republican senator from Oakland County, became the first woman to serve as chair of an appropriations committee in the Legislature; and Beverly Hammerstrom, a Republican who served in the House and Senate and was the first woman from Monroe County to be elected to the Legislature, became majority floor leader.

“Those were historic happenings,” Jacobs said. “Women were just starting to go into those leadership roles. “I think caucus members were warming up to the idea that women could do a good job in leadership.”

Still, shattering a glass ceiling is far from painless — and to shield one another from an intensely male-dominated world, Jacobs said women, Democrats and Republicans, banded together, something lawmakers stressed largely does not occur today in a time of hyper-partisanship.

“When I was in the Senate, there were 12 Republican and Democratic women — then the highest percentage of women senators in the history of Michigan,” she said. “We all were friends; there’s strength in numbers.”

Former Sen. Gilda Jacobs at a bill signing with Gov. Jennifer Granholm | Gilda Jacobs photo

While misogynists, from lawmakers to lobbyists, have tried to make women lawmakers’ days a living nightmare, women are continuing to run for, and serve in, office — something Jacobs said will naturally dismantle that old boys’ network in Lansing. The greater the hole has become in the glass ceiling, the more women there have been to help one another sidestep the broken shards on the ground.

“Women started saying, ‘Hey, I can do this; there’s no reason I can’t do this,’” Jacobs said. “…There are more women, more LGTBQ folks who are out and in leadership — just by virtue of that happening, that’s already a game-changer.”

After a surge of women candidates in 1992 — dubbed the “Year of the Woman” — the number of women in state legislatures nationwide plateaued around 25% throughout the 2000s — something that changed after Trump was elected in 2016. Following an increase of women candidates in the 2018 election, the percentage of women serving in state legislatures soared from 25.4% to 28.9% nationally.

“That was a shocking jump,” said Sinzdak of the Center for American Women and Politics. “It was the first time in a while that we’d seen the needle move in any real way.”

As the numbers of women have grown in Lansing, women lawmakers said they’ve begun to feel far less isolated. Still, it has been a difficult, and even traumatic, place to work, lawmakers said.

Women lawmakers have long described a workplace in which many of their male colleagues, lobbyists and insiders in Lansing seemed bent on emotionally and physically breaking them down in an effort to run them out of office.

It’s a cultural shift. Because it’s been so many men, it’s a male-dominated culture. It’s cigar-filled rooms; it’s all the big golf outings, the bourbon drinking. I’m like, I don’t enjoy some of that stuff. I’d love to change the order of business and open some of the cultural norms up. It doesn’t have to be the way it’s always been.

– State Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing)

In the 1980s and ‘90s, then-Democratic Sen. Lana Pollack — who served 12 years in the state Senate and was the only Democratic woman senator for two of those terms — regularly faced physical and verbal harassment.

There was “lewdness and that kind of sexuality that is totally inappropriate,” Pollack told MSU’s Spartan Newsroom in 2017. “It’s assaultive verbally or assaultive physically.

“The physical assault, the worst of it, was somebody planting a wet kiss on my mouth as a total gross surprise,” said Pollack, who founded OUR CHOICE, a political action committee that supported pro-choice women running for state office, and in 1992 wrote a bill amending Michigan’s civil rights law to end discriminatory practices that kept women athletes off of private golf courses.

It wasn’t just fellow lawmakers who were sexist, Pollack said: Sexism was also rampant among “lobbyists, labor leaders, civil servants, [Democratic] Gov. [James] Blanchard’s cabinet.”

That sexism has been pervasive throughout the years.

In 2012, for example, then-Democratic state Rep. Lisa Brown was banned from speaking on the House floor after she used the word “vagina” while discussing a sweeping anti-abortion bill (House Bill 5711) that was passed by the Republican-led Legislature, signed by Snyder and severely limited people’s access to reproductive care.

Brown’s colleague, then-Democratic state Rep. Barb Byrum, now the Ingham County clerk, was also barred from speaking on the floor after she tried to introduce an amendment that would ban men from having vasectomies unless it was needed to save their lives — a key component of the anti-abortion bill.

“I am being silenced for standing up for women,” Byrum said at the time. “This is yet another example of this Republican majority’s misogynistic and cowardly tactics.”

When Brown and Byrum were banned from speaking, Whitmer was serving in the state Senate and went on to organize a performance of “The Vagina Monologues” at the Capitol with playwright V in protest.

“They were trying to silence a debate on the floor about women’s health,” Whitmer recalled to the Advance.

In the decade that’s followed, lawmakers say the Capitol has continued to be a place rife with sexism and racism — a space where the House never investigated former Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who has been accused of allegedly sexually assaulting a child and running a “criminal enterprise” out of his Capitol office. (Democratic lawmakers said they aim for this to change now that they’re in the majority.)

A Senate probe in 2020 also found that former state Sen. Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Twp.) repeatedly sexually harassed women in Lansing, including McMorrow. Lucido now serves as Macomb County prosecutor. A county investigation last year found that he acted “inappropriately” with women and people of color.

“I didn’t expect to start my very first day getting sexually harassed by a colleague,” McMorrow said. “It’s been so shocking how far behind the Legislature has seemed from the private sector, where I came from. Diversity is good for business, and it feels like the private sector is so far ahead of the Legislature on this front.”

The examples of sexism, racism and harassment seem endless, lawmakers said.

Former Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), who spent his final days in office talking about conspiracy theories and toilets, frequently employed misogynist language while in office, saying, for example, that the GOP-led Legislature “spanked” Whitmer over her pandemic orders and called the governor “batshit crazy.” Shirkey also met with Michigan militia members in the wake of armed demonstrators waving signs of the Confederacy and filling the state Capitol.

Speaking of the Confederacy, against which about 90,000 Michiganders fought during the Civil War, state Rep. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) wore a Confederate-flag patterned mask during a May 2020 legislative session — for which he faced no repercussions from Republican leadership.

These are anecdotes that lawmakers said only begin to hint at the deep well of sexism and racism they have endured during their time in office. In addition to a barrage of sexual harassment, women, particularly Democratic women, said when they were in the minority, they faced consistent efforts to block their proposed bills from ever garnering hearings, let alone votes. McMorrow, for example, said she introduced 49 bills in her first term and did not receive a single hearing.

It is these kinds of misogynist and racist actions that the women who are now in charge emphasize will no longer be ignored — or encouraged. There will, lawmakers said, be repercussions for sexism and racism. Real, lasting and systemic change is on the horizon, they said.

“The Senate is an institution for the people — all people,” Brinks said. “As such, all who serve or visit here deserve to feel safe from harassment and discrimination. Likewise, there is an expectation that all who serve and visit here conduct themselves with professionalism and respect towards others. As leader, I will make that expectation crystal clear. We will be continuing the important work that has started in recent years of reviewing and updating the Senate’s sexual harassment and discrimination policies, and we will make this widely available.”

Similarly, Geiss said, “Our chambers, regardless of party or render or religion or economic background — are not going to tolerate misogyny and sexism and racism.”

“When those things happen, we will be clear that our space is not the space for them,” Geiss continued. “I wish that had happened back in 2020 when my former colleague [Zorn] thought it was funny to show up with a Confederate flag. It was disappointing that wasn’t tamped down within the leadership of his own caucus. We have an opportunity to do the exact opposite. I’m confident the leadership in both chambers will speak out when it’s necessary. It would be nice to have a scandal-free couple of terms.”

Not only will there be repercussions for bigotry, but Lansing will hopefully become a place where women and other historically marginalized people are truly welcome, said Anthony.

“It’s a cultural shift,” Anthony said. “Because it’s been so many men, it’s a male-dominated culture. It’s cigar-filled rooms; it’s all the big golf outings, the bourbon drinking. I’m like, I don’t enjoy some of that stuff. I’d love to change the order of business and open some of the cultural norms up. It doesn’t have to be the way it’s always been.”

McMorrow also stressed that point.

“It’s going to naturally change how we do things,” she said of more women being in office. “I want to go home and put my daughter to bed; I don’t want to stay out doing dinners and drinks.”

Part of “changing the way it’s always been,” as Anthony said, also means addressing bias and racism within the Democratic Party, elected officials pointed out. Women of color in Lansing said it’s been especially intense to serve in office and not only face harassment from colleagues on the other side of the political aisle but have had to deal with prejudice from within their own party.

“The journey is very difficult for Black women,” Anthony said. “There’s a difficulty in fundraising; people underestimate how hard it is being from a marginalized community and having to raise money to run for office. I’ve seen folks who would max out and give thousands of dollars to my male predecessors or folks who have the same amount of experience as me, but they’d give me only a small fraction of what they’d given them. You have to wonder why.”

Even within the Democratic caucus, Anthony said Black women “often aren’t taken seriously.”

Anthony said she has tried for years to pass the Michigan CROWN Act, which aims to prevent discrimination by expanding state law to recognize a person’s hair as a characteristic of race, but has not landed much support — including from some in her own party.

“For years and years, I’ve introduced and reintroduced and reintroduced a bill that would ban discrimination based on hair, and I’ve gotten laughed out of rooms, even with Democrats,” she said. “I have heard some of the most hurtful things. This impacts Black women and our ability to provide for our families. Black women have been terminated from their jobs because they wouldn’t chemically straighten their hair. Because this is about Black women, it hasn’t been taken seriously.

“One of my Democratic colleagues, a man, he said, ‘You don’t want to be known for this; it’s just hair,’” Anthony continued. “I’ve been told by folks, ‘You don’t want to come off as too Black.’”

Our chambers, regardless of party or render or religion or economic background — are not going to tolerate misogyny and sexism and racism.

– State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor)

‘These people are armed and motivated and anti-government’

As record numbers of women across the country run for, and serve in, office, their growing political power has been met with a barrage of death and rape threats, a deluge of online harassment, and other disparagement, said Mona Lena Krook, a political science professor at Rutgers University who in 2020 published the book, “Violence Against Women in Politics.”

While lawmakers in general have faced an increase in threats in recent years, politics has become particularly dangerous for women — who are three times more likely than their male colleagues to be subject to threats and harassment, according to a new national database from Princeton University and the Anti-Defamation League.

Whitmer, Benson and Nessel have all faced violent threats while leading the state, while lawmakers, especially BIPOC women, have repeatedly raised security concerns over heavily armed right-wing protests at the Capitol. Dievendorf, Michigan’s first openly nonbinary lawmaker and one of the first openly bisexual legislators, told the Advance prior to being sworn in this month that she “received an email just days ago telling me to harm myself, among other things.”

“I have received many emails trying to get me to not take office, noting specifically my being nonbinary,” Dievendorf told the Advance. “I shared that one with my colleagues, including my other LGBTQIA+ colleagues because they might try to imagine what it may be like for me, but they can’t know. I get these every day lately.”

These nonstop threats and harassment are about “making it difficult for women to want to continue, to want to come forward and be effective in political roles,” Krook said.

“Women of color, younger women and women from religious minorities are often more targeted because they challenge the traditional view of who is a traditional politician,” she added. “It’s sexism and racism and homophobia and all of those things mixed together.”

In October 2022, the Center for Democracy and Technology reported that women of color running for office faced higher rates of online abuse than their white counterparts, and a September report from the Center for American Women and Politics found women of color who are mayors are confronted with higher rates of violence, harassment and threats than white women.

The attacks against women politicians “goes above and beyond what men, especially white men, face in public office,” Krook said. “Men will face insults like, ‘You’re stupid; I hate your policies,’ but to women, they’re like, ‘You stupid, fat bitch; go back to the kitchen.’ That’s not contributing to debate.”

Using the plot to kidnap and kill Whitmer as an example, Krook said there is a growth in violence and threats against women in office, both in the U.S. and worldwide.

“These people are armed and motivated and anti-government,” Krook said of the militia members, all men, who have been sentenced in the plot to kidnap the governor.

In a victim impact statement given by Whitmer prior to the sentencing of three militia members convicted in the plot to kidnap and kill the governor, she spoke of deep psychological wounds.

“I’m asked all the time what being the target of this conspiracy has done to me and my family,” Whitmer said in the impact statement. “I want my family to know that their mom, their wife, their daughter, their sister is tough and stands up for what she believes in. But I cannot tell them honestly that I am unfazed. I now scan crowds for threats. I think carefully about the last thing I say to people when we part. I worry about the safety of everyone near me when I’m in public.”

This growing number of attacks against women in office, as well as their staff and families, poses a significant danger to democracy, Krook explained.

“Young women are saying they don’t want to run for political office; they say they’d never run given how vitriolic it’s gotten online,” Krook said. “It’s turned them off to a career in public service. This is about the future of our democracy.”

Whitmer said the same.

“A conspiracy to kidnap and kill a sitting governor of the state of Michigan is a threat to democracy itself,” the governor said in her impact statement. “And this kind of violent extremism has become disturbingly common.”

Krook also noted that women who are working for female politicians are often on the frontlines of the abuse against their bosses. That, Krook said, can deter staff who had hoped to run for office someday from doing so.

A conspiracy to kidnap and kill a sitting governor of the state of Michigan is a threat to democracy itself. And this kind of violent extremism has become disturbingly common.

– Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

“Female representatives are more likely to have female staff,” Krook said. “They’re the ones answering the phone, opening their emails and receiving this abuse. Sometimes the representatives don’t even know the volume of the threats, but their staffers do. These are young women who are interested in a political career in the future. Seeing the abuse, they’re like, ‘You know what? Forget it.’”

Sinzdak, of the Center for American Women and Politics, also emphasized the threat that sexism poses to democracy, noting that “some of what we’re seeing related to anti-democratic movements is related to a misogynistic platform that’s a real concern.”

“What we as a society can be doing more is calling out the misogyny towards women candidates,” she said. “We can play a role by being encouraging, being supportive of women candidates. Think of it as not just about electing more women to office but diversifying our government institutions, which will put all of us in a better place.”

Despite this surge in violence and threats against women, action to address it and the level of public discourse around it has not risen to the level it should be, Krook said.

“I think it’s overlooked because racism and sexism are so normalized in our society,” she said.

Still, while the death and rape threats are a deterrent to women running, women are still candidates and legislators — and in higher numbers than ever, Krook and a number of lawmakers emphasized.

“Suddenly, there are more women to talk to [in politics] and more women who can speak out,” Krook said.

Nessel noted the fact that women — she, Whitmer and Benson — fill the top three positions in the state “inspired even more women to run for office.”

“I think it allows people to see themselves in these positions, and it inspires more people to run,” Nessel said.

A new day for policy

As Democrats take control in Lansing, lawmakers and policy leaders are hopeful the new Legislature will be able to pass a long list of legislative priorities that range from axing the 1931 law banning abortion and repealing the anti-union right-to-work laws to expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for working families and protecting LGBTQ+ rights.

“What we’ve seen in the Michigan Legislature, and our country’s history, is a majority of legislators have been men, and particularly older men,” McMorrow said. “We’ve seen legislation that impacts women, especially working women and members of the LGBTQ community and people of color, get pushed to the back burner.”

Democrats are now putting an end to that, McMorrow and other elected officials said. With more lawmakers and staff who have a wider range of lived experiences in Lansing — people who have known poverty, are caretakers of children and parents, have lived day in and day out under sexist and racist systems of power — there will be a chance for the Legislature to champion policies that better reflect the lives of people who are not solely white, male, straight and wealthy, Democratic lawmakers said.

“I think it gives us an opportunity to be more intersectional in our policymaking,” said Geiss, who added she’s hopeful there will be bipartisan support for Democratic-led policies in the wake of an election in which Democrats took control of the Legislature for the first time in 40 years.

“Because we have slim majorities, it requires we work with our colleagues across the aisle who are not fringey,” Geiss said.

Sinzdak, of the Center for American Women and Politics, also emphasized the importance of having people from a wide range of backgrounds in office.

“Obviously, women aren’t a monolith, and there are partisan differences, but the reality of it is whenever our government institutions are diverse, that makes for a richer, deeper policy process and that’s important,” Sinzdak said. “The diversity of our government bodies is important for all of us. When they look like the communities they serve, it will be a better outcome.”

If we cannot tackle something like pay equity or childcare, if we can’t really start thinking about wages for health care workers and care takers, then we have completely missed the mark. We see women in the care professions like education and health care being left holding the bag with lower wages, terrible working conditions.

– State Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing)

During their first week in office, Democrats introduced legislation that would roll back the state’s pension tax, increase the earned income tax credit, expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual and gender identity, restore the state’s prevailing wage law, and repeal both the Right to Work anti-labor policy and the 1931 law criminalizing abortion care.

A wide range of lawmakers and advocates, including Wells Stallworth and Michigan League for Public Policy President and CEO Monique Stanton, say getting rid of the 1931 law banning abortion must be a priority for Democrats — something Whitmer also emphasized in her inauguration speech earlier this month.

“That is an early priority,” Pohutsky said of the 1931 law. “With having Proposal 3 passed, it’s not as pressing of a need, but it is still something that we just absolutely need to clean up and take off the books.”

Pohutsky and Geiss are the lead sponsors of bills introduced this month to repeal the 1931 law.

State Rep. Nate Shannon (D-Sterling Heights) and state Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet (D-Bay City) introduced legislation on Thursday that would expand the EITC. The tax credit benefits low- and moderate-income families making less than about $59,000 a year, and lawmakers said increasing it will help individuals access tax breaks that translate to more money for items like food and rent.

“The Earned Income Tax Credit is transformative for families who are struggling in poverty,” state Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) said.

Stanton said the MLPP is “hoping to see strong policy tied to economic justice, maternal health, childcare, and workplace improvements,” including lawmakers expanding the EITC to 30%.

“Our No. 1 policy we’ve been working on over the last year is an expansion of the earned income tax credit in Michigan,” Stanton said. “By expanding that, it will lift people out of poverty and address some of the worker shortages we’re experiencing in Michigan.”

Rivet’s Senate Bill 3 increases the EITC to 15% in 2023 and ends with a 30% boost by 2026. In the House, Shannon introduced House Bill 4002, which increases the EITC to 20% beginning in 2023.

Addressing the gender pay gap and making affordable childcare far more accessible will also lift people from poverty, Anthony said.

“If we cannot tackle something like pay equity or childcare, if we can’t really start thinking about wages for health care workers and care takers, then we have completely missed the mark,” Anthony said. “We see women in the care professions like education and health care being left holding the bag with lower wages, terrible working conditions.”

That, Anthony said, must change. She doesn’t doubt that it will — as she believes Lansing’s culture will undergo dramatic transformations as well.

“It was not long ago that people were talking about the governor’s dress,” Anthony said of FOX-2 running sexist remarks about Whitmer’s attire during her first State of the State address in 2019. “We’re slowly getting to a better place. It is exciting.”

Michigan Advance reporters Allison R. Donahue and Laina G. Stebbins and Editor Susan J. Demas contributed reporting to this story.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

'I'm still subject to death threats': Retiring pro-impeachment Republican has some advice for the GOP

Sitting at a borrowed desk in the Washington, D.C., office of his longtime friend and colleague U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Ann Arbor), U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) had two words to describe 169 Republican House members voting against a bill protecting marriage rights for same-sex and interracial couples: “dark ages.”

“This is about people’s housing and pensions, about people’s marriages not disappearing overnight,” Upton, who voted in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act, told the Advance just before heading to President Joe Biden’s signing ceremony for the marriage equality bill on Tuesday afternoon.

The longest-serving member of Michigan’s congressional delegation — who is spending the final days of his 36 years in Congress situated inside Dingell’s office because Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) moved into Upton’s former space — has plenty of criticism for the Republican colleagues he has been increasingly at odds with as the party delves into political violence and conspiracy theories and remains mired in former President Donald Trump’s lie that he won the 2020 election.

A Republican whose brand has long been one of centrism and bipartisanship — he calls Democratic colleagues like Dingell and U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Lansing) “good friends” at several points during the interview and emphasized he’s a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of House members who aim to foster bipartisan cooperation among lawmakers – Upton said he leaves office in a political environment more toxic than any other point during his decades in Congress.

The legislator, whose 6th District includes a large swath of Southwest Michigan, announced in April he would retire instead of running for reelection in a newly drawn district that would pit him in a primary against U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland). Huizenga, a vocal supporter of Trump, defeated Democrat Joseph Alfonso in November’s election and will represent the newly drawn 4th Congressional District.

It’s not solely the marriage equality bill upon which Upton has disagreed with the majority of his Republican colleagues. The 69-year-old lawmaker, who first took office during the Ronald Reagan administration, faced intense backlash from members of his party after voting to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election that the former Republican president lost.

“Jan. 6 was real, despite what some have said, and it was scary,” said Upton, who watched the rioters attack the Capitol on television because he had sequestered himself in his office that day due to concerns over COVID-19. “I’m convinced that by only a couple minutes we saved a massacre from happening on the floor of the House.”

While Republican lawmakers were witness to this fatal attack and the House committee investigating Jan. 6, 2021, has thoroughly documented the armed rioters attempting to overthrow a democratically elected government, as well as Trump’s leading role, Upton acknowledged there remain members of his party who will not abandon the lie that Trump won the election.

“We still have a lot of deniers,” Upton said. “A lot of them are scared of the [GOP] primary. They have a base they don’t want to upset.”

An Advance analysis found that despite a wave of “pro-democracy” candidates winning the Nov. 8 election, half of incoming GOP state lawmakers are election deniers.

This allegiance to Trump’s election lies after an attempted coup comes despite the state Bureau of Elections’ report on 250 post-2020 election audits in Michigan found “no examples of fraud or intentional misconduct by election officials” and a GOP-led state Senate Oversight Committee report in June 2021 that cited “no evidence of widespread or systemic fraud” in the 2020 election, among numerous other election audits nationwide that found the same.

“The top of our ticket in Michigan was three adamant [election] deniers,” Upton said of GOP gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, attorney general candidate Matt DePerno and secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo. “We lost the state House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. We got wiped clean at the top of the ticket. We have the lowest number of Republican members of Congress from Michigan ever — six. I think there’s a message there.

Jan. 6 was real, despite what some have said, and it was scary. I’m convinced that by only a couple minutes we saved a massacre from happening on the floor of the House.

– U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph)

“You can win a state convention, but you can’t win November’s general election if you just appeal to your base,” Upton continued. “Republicans have to appeal to independents. They have to talk about energy prices; they’ve got to talk about the environment. Climate change is real.”

Upton has long remained in the minority of Republicans when it comes to fighting Trump’s lie about the 2020 election — and his impeachment vote and commitment to telling the truth about the election has resulted in Trump repeatedly attacking Upton on social media.

When the Michigan legislator announced he was retiring, the former president gleefully said in a statement, “UPTON QUITS! 4 down and 6 to go. Others losing badly, who’s next?” Trump’s statement was a reference to the Republicans who voted for the former president’s impeachment. Of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, only two will return to Congress in January: Reps. David Valadao of California and Dan Newhouse of Washington.

In addition to earning Trump’s ire, Upton faced violent rhetoric from members of his party following his impeachment vote.

Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser, for example, casually referenced assassinating Upton and Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids), who also voted to impeach Trump. During a North Oakland Republican Club meeting in March 2021, an audience member asked Weiser what should be “done” about Upton and Meijer after the impeachment vote.

“Ma’am, other than assassination, I have no other way … other than voting [them] out,” Weiser said.

Meijer lost his August GOP primary to election denier John Gibbs, who went on to be defeated in the general election by Democrat Hillary Scholten.

Death threats also followed Upton backing the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a $1.2 trillion piece of legislation that Biden signed into law in November 2021 and sent billions of dollars to Michigan to repair roads, expand internet access, invest in ports, clean up the Great Lakes, and replace aging lead pipes that tainted water in communities like Benton Harbor, which Upton represents.

Immediately after the infrastructure vote, far-right U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), called Upton and the other 12 Republican House members who voted for the bill “traitors” in a tweet. In another tweet, Greene posted the phone numbers of those 13 Republicans.

After that, a flood of phone calls rushed into Upton’s office — more than 1,000 in a matter of days, the Michigan congressman said in a weekly email he has sent to constituents throughout much of his tenure.

In one voicemail left for Upton following the vote, an individual said, “I hope you die. I hope everybody in your f–king family dies.”

The caller also called Upton a “f–king piece of sh-t traitor.”

“It’s a difficult world,” Upton said Tuesday. “I’m still subject to death threats – me and my family. I lost a staff member because of the severity of the messages.”

The top of our ticket in Michigan was three adamant (election) deniers. We lost the state House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. We got wiped clean at the top of the ticket. We have the lowest number of Republican members of Congress from Michigan ever – six. I think there’s a message there.

– U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph)

The congressman said “most of the threats I had, and they were pretty nasty, were from folks out of state — Pennsylvania, South Carolina.”

In the wake of soaring political violence, Upton has had to change the way he thinks about safety for himself and his family.

“I’ve got cameras on my house,” he said. “I don’t release my public schedule.”

Political violence has surged in the wake of the Trump presidency and the 2020 election. In the five years after Trump was elected in 2016, the number of recorded threats against members of Congress soared more than tenfold to 9,625 in 2021, the New York Times reported.

Across the state and country, public officials, from congressional members to school board representatives and public health leaders, are facing increasing public hostility that academics previously told the Advance is rooted in the often aggressive and violent rhetoric that emanated from Trump and his former administration and has now bled into Republican politics at the state and local levels.

A February 2021 study from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a right-leaning Washington, D.C.-based think tank, found that a majority, 56%, of Republicans “support the use of force as a way to arrest the decline of the traditional American way of life.” Meanwhile, 35% of independents and 22% of Democrats said the use of force is necessary to “stop the disappearance of traditional American values and way of life,” AEI wrote.

Upton pointed to comments Greene made over the weekend as an example of politically violent rhetoric.

During a Saturday night dinner hosted by the New York Young Republicans Club, Greene said that had she and former Trump aide Stephen Bannon organized the Jan. 6, 2021 attack, they would have been armed and “successful.”

“Sadly, we have folks who really do believe that,” Upton said.

Instead of focusing on attacking Democrats, Upton said he hopes Republicans begin to mirror one of his political idols, Reagan, and foster a world of bipartisanship.

“He got things done and worked with a Democratic Congress,” Upton said of Reagan. “He won 49 states when he ran for reelection — he won all states but [Democratic candidate Walter] Mondale’s Minnesota.”

Dingell said Upton has a similar quality and has been able to connect with lawmakers and constituents from a variety of political backgrounds.

“Fred is one of my best friends, and I will miss him in Congress very much,” Dingell told the Advance. “He knew that serving the American people requires coming together and listening to all perspectives. Because of that, he was able to get so much done in Congress, and I am especially proud of all that we accomplished together. He is one of the greatest Michiganders to serve our country, and his retirement is a great loss for our state.”

One Republican leader Upton does not see appealing to a wide variety of people is Trump. While the former president has announced his bid for the 2024 presidential election, Upton said he no longer appeals to independent voters.

“He’s a very viable candidate and his core base is as committed as ever,” Upton said of Trump. “He’s not going away, but he’s lost his support among independent voters for sure. They’ve had it. They wish he dropped his cell phone and tweets in a bucket of water in year one.”

According to a Quinnipiac University poll published Wednesday, Trump’s approval ratings are at the lowest they’ve been in seven years. Republicans continue to largely back Trump, with 70% of GOP voters having a favorable opinion of him, the poll reported. That number is far lower among independent voters, 25% of whom reported having a favorable opinion of the former president.

Seven in 10 registered voters said they do not want Trump as the 2024 Republican nominee for president; 56% of Republican voters said they would like Trump to be the nominee.

Now, Republicans need to focus on issues like “making sure families can afford to send their sons and daughters to higher education,” Upton said.

“We can’t just say no,” he said “We have to be part of the solution; that’s where the Republican party has to be. We’re going to have to appeal to suburban voters – soccer moms as they say.”

As for Upton, he’ll be watching the lead-up to the 2024 election “from the sidelines.”

“I’m prohibited from lobbying, but I’ll be involved with the Problem Solvers Caucus and other bipartisan groups trying to make a better quality of life for all Americans,” he said.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

Conspiracy theorists flood the election process, set sights on monitoring ballot drop boxes

In the 2020 presidential election, there were upwards of 150 poll workers in Detroit.

Then came the onslaught of right-wing conspiracy theories and lies that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump – and the baseless claim that heavily Democratic Detroit had played a starring role.

In the wake of these lies, more than 400 Republican poll workers from throughout the state descended upon Michigan’s largest city, which is majority Black, for the August primary.

While those poll workers – all of whom had to go through training by Detroit city officials – didn’t say outright that they believed the 2020 election was stolen, they asked questions in trainings that “they may deem legitimizes their position for the election being stolen,” said Daniel Baxter, Detroit’s former elections director who is now the chief operating officer for the city’s absentee ballot counting process.

“One of the good things is many of the poll workers in the primary election, many of these allegations that were made in 2020, the workers from the Republican Party who were expecting to see all that stuff, they didn’t see it,” Baxter said. “I don’t know if that made them disenchanted or relieved.”

Election administrators across the state and country are similarly reporting that Republicans are rushing to become part of and monitor an election process that GOP leaders continue to falsely label as fraudulent and which the majority of Republican voters believes resulted in the 2020 election being stolen from Trump (even though President Joe Biden won a decisive victory in both the Electoral College and popular vote).

For example, the “Michigan Election Protection Team,” a collection of right-wing groups organized by the Michigan Republican Party, worked to recruit thousands of “election inspectors” for the Aug. 2 primary and Nov. 8 election and is holding ongoing poll challenger trainings – efforts that mirror the national GOP’s poll worker and challenger recruitment initiatives.

And it’s not just polls that Republicans are determined to swarm on Election Day. As with Republicans nationwide, they’ve increasingly set their sights on ballot drop boxes in the weeks leading up to November’s election. The Macomb Republican Party, which was recently embroiled in ugly internal disputes over the control of the party, days ago called for Republicans to become “drop box monitors.”

Ballot drop boxes are secure and locked containers where people can place their votes. Last week, the Legislature struck a bipartisan election reform deal that beefs up drop box security, in addition to other measures like giving election workers two days to pre-process absentee ballots.

These boxes became increasingly prevalent beginning in the 2020 election in an effort to allow people to vote without having to stand close to others during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, they’ve become a lightning rod for baseless Republican conspiracy theories focused, again, on fraud during the 2020 election.

GOP Secretary of State nominee Kristina Karamo, who is running on Nov. 8 against Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to be the state’s chief elections officer, repeatedly makes false claims about the 2020 election and about so-called “ballot mules” stuffing votes for Biden into drop boxes.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon has said she supports banning ballot drop boxes entirely – something Michigan Republican lawmakers have attempted to do through a series of voter restriction legislation that has been vetoed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Dixon’s opponent.

GOP Attorney General nominee Matthew DePerno, meanwhile, is the subject of a petition for a special prosecutor into whether third parties gained unauthorized access to, and then tampered with, election equipment and data after the 2020 election. DePerno will face Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel in November’s election.

These efforts, from recruiting a sea of 2020 election denying poll workers and challengers to monitoring drop boxes, are concerning political experts and election workers who worry they could lead to voter intimidation or other illegal activity emanating from the right-wing individuals focused on undermining and attacking democracy.

“We have been alerted that the Republican Party has actively been trying to recruit spies to be employed by the local clerk but report to the Republican Party directly – sneak in cell phones, do all sorts of mole type behaviors,” Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said. “As a result, I have encouraged local clerks to remember they’re the employer of the precinct worker. If a worker is violating their oath of office or is being insubordinate, they may be relieved of their duties.”

The Michigan GOP did not respond to a request for comment.

Prior to August’s primary, Wayne County GOP leaders, including former state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, encouraged poll workers and monitors to ignore election rules restricting cell phone use at polling places and vote-counting centers.

Last week, a Michigan election worker was charged with two felonies for allegedly inserting a personal flash drive into an electronic poll book in Kent County’s Gaines Township. James Donald Holkeboer was an election inspector at the Gaines Township 8th Precinct, according to Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons’ office. The GOP had nominated Holkeboer to be an alternate precinct delegate in April.

Lyons, who is a Republican former House member and the GOP’s 2018 lieutenant governor nominee, called the incident “extremely egregious and incredibly alarming. Not only is it a violation of Michigan law, but it is a violation of public trust and of the oath all election workers are required to take.”

Byrum, a Democrat who also served in the House, said Holkeboer’s arrest shows the system works.

“What happened in Kent County should be a warning: You will be caught and you will be prosecuted and suffer the consequences of your misguided actions,” Byrum said. “… What these people are being told to do have real world consequences.”

Byrum added that Republican leaders’ calls for individuals to “monitor” drop boxes could lead to “individuals lingering and intimidating people who are opting to safely and security place their ballot in a drop box.”

Aghogho Edevbie, the Michigan state director for All Voting is Local Action, said that while “everyone has a right to monitor these boxes” because they’re in public spaces, “there’s a fine line between monitoring and intimidation.”

“Unfortunately, what we’ve been seeing from the beginning when drop boxes became more prevalent in Michigan is that there’s a group of folks very much in the minority who believe drop boxes should not be used,” said Edevbie, whose organization is a national group that works to remove discriminatory barriers to voting and partnered with the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice on an explanatory paper focusing on what election inspectors are permitted to do in Michigan.

“That’s unfortunate because they give voters of all different economic stripes the ability to vote absentee. It expands access to the ballot, and that’s something we should all be for.”

Rachel Orey, the associate director for the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Elections Project, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said drop boxes are “essential” to democracy, but have been maligned following the 2020 election.

“Since the 2020 election they’ve been misconstrued in popular media and in the halls of state legislatures,” Orey said. “…With the drop box, you’re submitting [a ballot] into a secure locked container that has more video surveillance than a post box. They’re collected by bipartisan teams and taken to an election office to be counted.

“Research has proven drop boxes increase voter turnout and participation,” Orey continued. “If you do away with them entirely, it risks dampening voter turnout.”

In addition to video surveillance of drop boxes, there are a long list of security measures that election administrators must meet when it comes to drop boxes. Edevbie said the additional security measures passed by state lawmakers this week were “fine.”

Baxter noted that each ballot drop box in Detroit is monitored 24 hours a day by surveillance cameras. Should there be any issues regarding voter intimidation at a drop box, election officials would be immediately able to connect with city police, Baxter said.

Ken Kollman, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, emphasized a response from law enforcement is crucial should there be attempts to intimidate voters.

“Efforts to monitor voting boxes could potentially become efforts to intimidate people wanting to vote,” Kollman said. “Let’s hope that doesn’t happen and if it does that appropriate authorities can uphold laws against voter intimidation and hold offenders accountable.”

Despite this litany of issues, 92% of local government leaders reported being “very confident” in their jurisdiction’s ability to administer an accurate election in November, up from 87% in 2020, according to a recently published poll from the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State and Urban Policy. In that poll, 85% of local officials said they are “very” confident that their jurisdiction’s final vote results, voting machines and voting rolls will not be compromised, a significant increase over the 63% who said the same in 2020.

However, according to that same poll, concerns about potential disturbances at polling places have risen, with 27% of local leaders from the state’s largest jurisdictions – places with more than 30,000 residents – reporting there could be such issues. Nine percent statewide said the same. About 19% of local officials said intentional disinformation about voting is a problem, with 29% of those in the largest jurisdictions saying the same.

“If there will be disturbances, it’s pretty clear it’s coming from the Trumpist side, and those would most likely be targeted at our urban places,” said Tom Ivacko, the executive director for the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

To boost confidence in the election process and hopefully deter disturbances at drop boxes, polling places and vote counting centers, election administrators said they’ve been working hard to connect with citizens and be clear and transparent about how the election process works.

In the city of Lansing, for example, there was, like Detroit, an increase in the number of Republicans who applied to be poll workers for the August primary. A city of Lansing clerk’s office employee said there were more than 60 new poll workers for the primary. The clerk’s office sent a survey to them after the primary and asked if they felt the election process was secure. All but two responded positively, the employee said.

Orey, of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Elections Project, noted that “for much of the last several decades, election officials have attempted to use serving as a poll worker or observer as a way to bring skeptical voters into the process and educate them on the security mechanisms in place.”

That transparency, Ivacko said, is crucial.

“There are people on a spectrum of how much they trust elections; for those who understand how elections are run and how committed our election officials are to running elections with integrity, I think the more people who can see that the better,” he said.

Still, the relentless right-wing disinformation campaign around elections and GOP officials’ push to have election deniers involved in elections is not only leaving election administrators disheartened but facing an increase in concerns over their own safety.

Byrum, for example, noted that while she has not received any threats of violence, she knows “many of my colleagues have.

“Part of the intent behind these threats and harassment that election administrators receive are because conspiracy pushers want to get rid of professional, state-certified election professionals so they can be replaced with other conspiracy believers,” Byrum said. “… A lot of our civil servants are being demonized: our nurses, our teachers, our members of the press, our election administrators – people who dedicate their lives to serving the public.”

Baxter noted that when he was looking at a website for municipal elections positions in 2013, there were about 35 vacancies. After the 2020 presidential election, “there were more than 200 vacancies throughout the United States,” he said.

No Detroit election workers have quit over threats of violence, Baxter said, but it’s still a widespread concern.

“There are a lot of us saying, ‘It’s not worth my life, it’s not worth the threats, it’s not worth the harassment, I quit,’” he said. “That’s where we find ourselves.”

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

Republican goes off on his own party — accuses 'globalists' of running the Michigan GOP

With the Michigan Republican convention just days away, former GOP gubernatorial candidates continue to lob criticism at a Michigan Republican Party facing infighting — including Ryan Kelley, who on Saturday called for an overhaul of the state’s GOP leadership and said he’s considering a bid for party chair.

“People have asked me if I would look at the Michigan GOP chair position,” Kelley, a real estate broker from Allendale who placed fourth in the Aug. 2 primary, said during the “Call to Action” conference organized by Church Militant, a right-wing Catholic organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels as a hate group, in Detroit this past weekend. “Right now, we have globalists that are running the Michigan GOP that are not interested in voting the Republican agenda.”

“Globalist” has become a favorite term among right-wing politicians and media, with former President Donald Trump routinely employing it, despite the fact that the word is rooted in anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt explained that the slur is “a reference to Jewish people who are seen as having allegiances not to their countries of origin like the United States, but to some global conspiracy.”

To use the term “globalist” is “disturbing,” Greenblatt said, adding that public officials “literally parrot this term which is rooted in prejudice.”

During the weekend-long event from Church Militant, which describes itself as a group that “does battle against sin, the devil and the demonic rulers of the darkness of this world,” Kelley said “we need to change this [Michigan Republican] party.”

Kelley was joined at the Church Militant event by GOP Secretary of State and QAnon-connected candidate Kristina Karamo, who, like Kelley, consistently promotes the lie that Trump won the 2020 election. Karamo has also pushed the conspiracy theory that the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, was a false flag operation.

Kelley was arrested by the FBI in June on charges related to the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, when Trump supporters attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Ron Weiser, who is Jewish, currently chairs the state GOP with Meshawn Maddock as co-chair. Maddock, who is married to state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford), is an ardent supporter of Trump and was one of 16 fake Republican electors who sought to overturn the 2020 election results.

Like Kelley and Karamo, the Maddocks and Weiser have been vocal proponents of the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen.

A spokesperson for the Michigan GOP did not respond to a request for comment.

When reached by text on Monday, Kelley — who has never publicly conceded the election and has baselessly insisted there were “oddities” in it — did not elaborate on what his specific complaints are regarding the party’s GOP leadership.

“If I take on the MIGOP chair it’s too early to determine what specifically I will change for the better,” Kelley wrote in a text.

Kelley’s comments come as the Michigan Republican Party has further erupted into infighting as its convention in Lansing nears this weekend, when delegates will approve the candidate for lieutenant governor.

Typically, delegates back the lieutenant governor tapped by the gubernatorial candidate — currently Tudor Dixon — but there has been backlash against both Dixon’s candidacy and her announcement on Friday that she selected former state Rep. Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron) as her running mate.

Throughout the primary, and in the weeks following the Aug. 2 election, Dixon’s Republican challengers have lambasted her as the “establishment” candidate because she has been backed by the billionaire DeVos family – political power brokers in West Michigan that include Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Dixon secured an endorsement from Trump just before landing her victory in the primary.

Dixon will face Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Nov. 8.

Criticism for Dixon is not relegated solely to her previous opponents. On Monday, former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who was one of five GOP gubernatorial candidates kicked off the ballot over forged petition signatures, told Hour Detroit that he’s not supporting Dixon.

“At this point, I’m not supporting Tudor Dixon, and I’m not supporting Governor Whitmer,” Craig said, later telling the Detroit News he would back U.S. Taxpayers nominee Donna Brandenburg, who also sought the GOP nomination and was kicked off the ballot.

After Dixon announced her pick for lieutenant governor, Garrett Soldano, who placed third in Michigan’s gubernatorial primary, said Friday he was considering a run for the job. On Monday afternoon, Soldano abruptly announced on Twitter that he would not make a bid for the position.

Shortly after, the Rev. Ralph Rebandt, who landed fifth place in the primary, announced Monday evening that he will make a bid for lieutenant governor.

“After thoughtful consideration and prayer I accept the request and support from delegates, county chairs, and citizens to run for the nomination of Lieutenant Governor of Michigan at the August 27 Republican Convention,” Rebandt wrote in a press release.

Rebandt went on to say that “regardless of the outcome” of this weekend’s GOP convention, he “will wholly and completely support the Tudor Dixon ticket on the November ballot and will work to secure a Republican victory.”

Trump issued a statement after Rebandt’s release that he backs Hernandez.

During the Church Militant event on Saturday, Kelley said he’s also toying with the idea of running for U.S. Senate in 2024.

“I need to see the direction God wants for me, and potentially that means maybe running for U.S. Senate in 2024 because Debbie Stabenow’s seat is going to be up,” Kelley said, referring to the Democratic senator from Michigan.

“I bet you [Stabenow] retires and [U.S. Transportation Secretary] Pete Buttigieg runs for that seat as well,” Kelley said. “Why else do you think he moved to Michigan? Pete Buttigieg vs. Ryan Kelley; Ryan Kelley will become our next senator.”

Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, purchased a home in Traverse City a couple years ago, and Buttigieg recently announced he is changing his primary residence from Indiana to Michigan and will vote in Michigan’s midterm elections.

The day after the Church Militant discussion, Kelley spoke with Soldano in a wide-ranging interview that included Kelley saying he is largely focusing his political efforts on fighting two initiatives expected to be on the November ballot: the Reproductive Freedom for All initiative, which would enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution, and the Promote the Vote initiative, which would expand voting access in the state.

On Aug. 8, Kelley registered his ballot question committee, named “Unborn Equity and Voting Integrity.” Kelley announced the creation of the committee in a Facebook Live video last week; in his interviews with Soldano and Church Militant this weekend he repeatedly plugged the committee and urged people to donate to it.

“My main focus is defeating the extreme and radical ballot proposals this November,” Kelley wrote in a text to the Advance on Monday.

In his discussion with Soldano, Kelley said he plans to target “Whitmer voters and the Democrats that are pro-choice” in an effort to fight the Reproductive Freedom for All initiative.

“We need a TV commercial of, you know, someone from Detroit, right?” Kelley told Soldano. “Maybe a Black lady from Detroit that says, ‘You know, I’m pro-choice and for a woman’s right to choose, but these proposals, they just go way too far.”

Michigan has a 1931 abortion ban on the books that does not have exceptions for rape, incest or the mother’s health that Kelley supports. A doctor or pregnant person self-adminstering medication abortion could be charged with a felony with a possible penalty of up to four years in prison.

There is currently an injunction preventing the law from being in effect while court cases wind their way through the courts. Michigan’s GOP-controlled Legislature has intervened arguing to keep the law in place.

Public opinion doesn’t appear to be on Kelley’s side. A recent Data for Progress poll reported 80% of Michiganders said the government “should not have a say in personal matters like a person’s sexual preference or gender identity.”

That’s consistent with earlier surveys, like an August 2020 poll done by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling that found 77% of Michigan voters agree that any decision about pregnancy should be made by the pregnant person.


Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

How Trump’s footprint is all over Michigan’s race for governor

Days before Michigan’s Republican gubernatorial primary on Tuesday, former President Donald Trump made an announcement some of his supporters had begged him not to do: He just might endorse right-wing media personality Tudor Dixon for governor.

“Giving Tudor Dixon a good, hard look,” Trump wrote Friday morning on Truth Social, the social media company he founded after being kicked off Twitter in the wake of attempting to overturn the 2020 election he lost to President Joe Biden.

“Brought her to everyone’s attention at our big Michigan Rally,” Trump wrote, referring to the April 2 rally he held in Macomb County. “All of her supporters are working hard for Endorsement/Victory. Stay tuned!”

Later that evening, Trump made it official with a typically flamboyant statement, much to the chagrin of the other GOP candidates and many of his most ardent supporters.

“When I met Tudor Dixon, she was not well known, but I could tell she had something very special — it was a quality that few others have. She delivered a powerful speech on how she would lead Michigan, fight for Election Integrity, turn around the Economy, and protect the future of Michigan for every child. Then, after recognizing her during my Rally speech in April, her campaign took off like a rocket ship. The great people of Michigan got it — just like I did,” Trump wrote just after 8 p.m.

Trump’s announcement comes at the tail end of a race dominated by conspiracy theories about the 2020 election — namely that Trump won, which he did not — and one in which all of the candidates have clamored to appear cozy with the former president and the policies he, and now largely Republicans nationwide, have embraced.

Dixon, far-right activist Ryan Kelley, businessman Kevin Rinke, the Rev. Ralph Rebandt and chiropractor Garrett Soldano will face off in Tuesday’s GOP gubernatorial primary on Tuesday following a race that has been largely molded by Trump and Trumpian, national right-wing talking points, from a barrage of disinformation about the 2020 election to transphobic attacks.

The winner will face Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the November general election.

Rebandt told the Advance Friday before Trump made his endorsement that it would be a mistake for him to pick Dixon.

“If he endorsed her, it would turn off people who are grassroots towards him,” Rebandt said.

The Michigan Republican Party appears to be somewhat in flux right now — with many devotees to the ex-president, but there are signs of waning support. (For example, in a hypothetical 2024 primary between Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, 45% of Michigan GOP voters polled by the Detroit News said they would vote for Trump and 42% backed DeSantis. However, polls more than two years before an election are hardly predictive of results.)

The Rev. Ralph Rebandt participates in a GOP gubernatorial debate on WKAR’s Off the Record, July 15, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Trump’s Dixon endorsement means that the former president who many Republicans fete as a renegade — someone who fights political insiders, despite him and his administration being mired in corruption and failing to achieve Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” — is backing a candidate routinely slammed by the other GOP gubernatorial contenders as being “establishment” because she has landed the endorsement and financial backing of the billionaire DeVos family.

The political powerbrokers in West Michigan — including Trump’s former secretary of education, Betsy DeVos — have funneled about $1 million into Dixon’s campaign, according to campaign filings with the state. This isn’t unusual. For decades, the DeVoses have been big spenders on GOP candidates in Michigan and nationwide, as well as on right-wing causes like school vouchers. They donated at least $82 million between 1999 and 2016, according to the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Dixon also has racked up endorsements from leaders like former Gov. John Engler, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), as well as powerful right-wing interest groups like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Right to Life of Michigan. And she is set to be a guest on “Fox News Sunday” just before the Tuesday primary.

There were prior rumblings that the ex-president could endorse Dixon, who Trump praised during a February fundraiser for her at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. She’s not the only GOP gubernatorial hopeful to make a pilgrimage to Trump’s compound; Kelley and Rebandt attended a fundraising event for likely GOP Attorney General nominee Matthew DePerno in March. Meanwhile, Rinke, who has poured millions into his own campaign, is fond of making comparisons to himself and Trump as outsiders and successful businessmen.

But Dixon was the only gubernatorial candidate Trump mentioned by name during his April rally in Michigan (a fact he deemed significant enough to stress in his official endorsement, which he said caused her campaign to take off “like a rocket ship.”)

With Dixon clearly catching the former president’s attention, that led to Soldano begging Trump not to intervene in the governor’s race. He issued a Facebook live video on July 20 arguing that the “DeVos empire” has “basically abandoned you, sir.”

Other Michigan candidates endorsed by Trump tried, as well, sending him a letter asking him “not to work with Betsy DeVos.” And key Trump ally Meshawn Maddock, who was one of the fake GOP electors in 2020 and is now co-chair of the Michigan GOP — which DeVos used to chair — tweeted Thursday, “Anyone who claims that DeVos isn’t working against Trump in Michigan isn’t paying attention.”

On Friday, Kelley released a campaign video formatted as a message to Trump, complete with him walking with his family in the woods, in an effort to elicit the ex-president’s support.

Soldano also gave it one last shot on Friday — to no avail.

“Mr. President, you have a choice to be with the grassroots who back you 100%, or with the establishment who supports you only when it benefits them,” the Soldano campaign wrote on Facebook. “Let us fight this battle. We’re gonna be behind the nominee, but don’t side with the Devos family!”

One of the main issues Trump backers have blasted DeVos over is resigning from his administration after his supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an effort to overturn the 2020 election. She also told Michigan Republicans at their biennial confab on Mackinac Island last year that the GOP movement is not dependent on “any one person” in a thinly veiled jab at her former boss.

Dixon, who did not respond to a request for comment for this story, tweeted Friday night that she was “honored” to have received Trump’s blessing and already looked ahead to the Nov. 8 general election, adding, “We will unite Michigan and defeat Gretchen Whitmer.” (Her pinned tweet from April 3 also is an homage to Trump, a video of his last Michigan rally with the comment, “Thank you for the nice comments, President Trump! We’re working very hard to win back Michigan!”)

Trump giving his blessing to Dixon is likely to be a blow to the other candidates in the primary, political experts told the Advance. That includes Kelley — a die-hard Trump supporter who was arrested by the FBI in June for participating in the Jan. 6 insurrection — something some pundits opined could bolster his chances in the primary.

But beyond the last-minute Dixon endorsement, Trump’s footprint is all over the Republican race for governor in terms of what the candidates have focused on. That includes pushing disinformation about the 2020 election — every candidate but Rinke has said the 2020 election was stolen, but Rinke has said there was “fraud” and released a TV ad with widely debunked claims.

Candidates also have made bigoted remarks about the LGBTQ+ community. Trump and his administration were notoriously anti-LGBTQ+. Just a few weeks after Trump’s inauguration, for example, the administration rescinded the Obama administration’s guidance to schools on transgrender students that required schools to protect transgender students from harassment, accommodate students’ preferred pronouns, and give transgender students access to the locker rooms and bathrooms of their choice.

And, as has been the case nationwide, the campaign has been overwhelmingly dominated by conservative national talking points.

“You see much more nationalized primaries where Republican primaries are about the affiliation with Trump,” said Matt Grossmann, a political science professor at Michigan State University.

Trumpian language also has also bled into GOP politics, including the Michigan gubernatorial race, experts said.

“The rhetoric of politics seems to have declined in quality” both with Trump and in his wake, said Jonathan Hanson, a political scientist and lecturer at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy.

“It’s always been a little shallow — there have been a lot of platitudes and not a lot of specifics – but we’ve gotten to a point where Trump took that rhetoric and corrupted it with these transparently ridiculous things he would say,” Hanson continued.

Trump’s rhetoric got to a point where his followers would chant alongside him to jail his 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. “Lock her up!” became a ubiquitous phrase at Trump rallies. After he slammed Whitmer at an October 2020 Michigan rally just days after federal and state officials announced arrests in a far-right assassination plot against her, his supporters broke into a “lock her up” chant against the governor.

“That kind of rhetoric would have been beyond the pale in prior elections,” Hanson said, adding that he’s seen that kind of extreme language “mirrored in the governor’s race.”

“What you’re seeing is there’s a growing willingness to say things that would’ve been seen as outrageous not too long ago,” Hanson said — such as claiming the current president of the United States stole an election.

Similarly, DePerno, who also sports Trump’s endorsement, has said he would prosecute his opponent, Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, for referring the fraudulent Michigan Trump electors to the Department of Justice for investigation, among other issues upon which he’s declined to elaborate.

While this kind of Trumpian language and extremism may play to candidates’ advantage in the primary, these increasingly right-wing stances on issues like abortion and being anti-LGBTQ+ could seriously hurt them in November’s general election against Whitmer, political experts said.

J. Miles Coleman, an associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political analysis newsletter run by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the candidates’ focus on so-called “cultural war” issues “could end up playing in the Democrats’ favor, especially if Republicans overplay their hand.”

“Whitmer’s win in 2018 was built on the backs of higher-income, more college-educated parts of the state,” Coleman said, adding that in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and a Michigan ballot initiative that would enshrine the right to abortion in the state Constitution, “that group is charged up this year.”

“If we go into a recession, I can see it being a single-issue election, but I think those cultural issues matter,” Coleman said.

One thing I look at to size up how vulnerable governors could be is how strict their mask requirements were during lockdown. Whitmer got a lot of criticism; she should be a governor who is highly vulnerable, but instead we have her race leaning Democrat.

– J. Miles Coleman, an associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political analysis newsletter run by the University of Virginia Center for Politics

Candidates haven’t solely focused on national talking points. Their efforts to discuss local issues have largely centered around attacking Whitmer over her early pandemic policies aimed at curbing COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations. However, Michigan has had virtually no pandemic restrictions since July 2021.

But while other governors who enacted pandemic health measures — such as mask mandates and limits on gatherings — could be vulnerable in their elections, Coleman said that doesn’t appear to be the case for Whitmer.

“One thing I look at to size up how vulnerable governors could be is how strict their mask requirements were during lockdown,” Coleman said. “Whitmer got a lot of criticism; she should be a governor who is highly vulnerable, but instead we have her race leaning Democrat.

“There’s not a single legislator running against her; I thought that was interesting that these higher-stature Republicans were taking a pass,” Coleman continued.

Grossmann also noted this lack of candidates with a legislative background.

“We have no one with any experience,” Grossmann said, noting that could be another reason that candidates have focused largely on cultural issues — because they don’t have a background in government or economic policy to discuss.

“No one is really asked about their record,” Grossmann continued. “Governing is still mostly about economic issues, but there’s no opportunity to examine anyone’s record because they don’t have any. We don’t know much about how these people would govern.”

This lack of a record translates to a gubernatorial field with little name recognition, experts said. While candidates have landed major endorsements, particularly Dixon, that seemingly hasn’t boosted name recognition to the degree candidates would likely want, experts said.

“Dixon is sort of a tenuous frontrunner — sort of,” Coleman said.

Hanson said right-wing candidates often use “cultural wedge” issues to distract lower- and middle-income voters from the candidates’ economic policies, like tax cuts for the wealthy.

“They’re finding these kinds of issues that are working for them, especially with their base right now in the primaries,” Hanson said of Michigan’s gubernatorial candidates. “It will be interesting to see if they shift gears a little bit, whoever wins, when they get towards the general election. I think broadly speaking the strategy of conservatives has been to use these cultural wedge issues as a way to reach out to constituents that don’t necessarily benefit from their economic policies.”

However, abortion doesn’t appear to be an issue cutting in Republicans’ favor in Michigan. A recent Data for Progress poll reported 80% of Michiganders said the government “should not have a say in personal matters like a person’s sexual preference or gender identity.” That’s consistent with earlier surveys, like an August 2020 poll done by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling that found 77% of Michigan voters agree that any decision about pregnancy should be made by the pregnant person.

This support contrasts with the gubernatorial candidates: Every single GOP gubernatorial candidate has said they supported the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade and back banning abortion in Michigan, which currently remains legal in the state. Every candidate also slammed the left for what they call “woke” stances on gender-neutral language and issued a series of transphobic comments during their final debate on Wednesday.

Traditional journalism doesn’t work very well with this phenomenon with what’s happening with our campaigning. … It’s not all about the horse race; it’s about our system. If we know these statements are lies (such as about the 2020 election), is it the responsibility of the reporter to call it a lie? I think so.

– Jonathan Hanson, a political scientist and lecturer at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy

The candidates’ transphobic attacks come at a time when the LGBTQ+ community, both nationally and in the state, is facing a coordinated legislative pushback on gay and transgender rights. GOP lawmakers in Michigan and across the country have introduced anti-trans bills, equated LGBTQ+ people with pedophiles and more while denying protections for transgender people — 82% of whom have considered killing themselves and 40% of whom have attempted suicide.

These stances, however, don’t always make their way into most coverage of the race, with some outlets tending to focus on more “horse race” aspects of the campaign — such as how candidates are attacking Whitmer or polling. This, experts said, is problematic, particularly when there are extremist candidates who have falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen and support a wide variety of voter restrictions, including getting rid of ballot boxes.

“Traditional journalism doesn’t work very well with this phenomenon with what’s happening with our campaigning,” Hanson said. “… It’s not all about the horse race; it’s about our system. If we know these statements are lies [such as with the 2020 election], is it the responsibility of the reporter to call it a lie? I think so.”

On that note: The GOP candidates running for governor are lying about the 2020 election. Whether that will matter in this election is yet to be seen.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

Michigan GOP prosecutors are ‘scaring’ abortion patients, Planned Parenthood says

While Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, reproductive health groups and physicians emphasize that abortion remains legal in Michigan, some Republican county prosecutors are arguing otherwise. Those statements could create a “chilling effect” on patients and health care providers navigating a post-Roe landscape, a Planned Parenthood of Michigan spokesperson said Tuesday.

“We are really disappointed in county prosecutors who are spreading disinformation and scaring patients,” said Planned Parenthood of Michigan spokesperson Ashlea Phenicie. “I want to be clear that abortion is legal in Michigan, and Planned Parenthood stores are open. Patients who have appointments can keep them, and patients who need them can make them.”

After the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on Friday, ending the constitutional right to an abortion that has existed in the nation for nearly 50 years, abortion legality now falls to each individual state. In Michigan, there is a 91-year-old law enacted in 1931 that criminalizes abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest, but Whitmer and Nessel say its enforcement is on hold after a Court of Claims judge granted an injunction in a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood to block the abortion ban.

Republican county prosecutors in Kent and Jackson counties, however, argue the injunction pertains solely to the state attorney general’s office and not county prosecutors and said they would consider criminal charges against abortion providers if police brought them investigations, according to an attorney representing the prosecutors.

“They’re not out looking for cases, but if a police agency brought a report or investigation to them that a doctor performed an abortion and violated the law, a prosecutor could prosecute them,” said David Kallman, an attorney who represents Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker and Jackson County Prosecutor Jerard Jarzynka.

Kallman, who endorsed former Republican House Speaker Tom Leonard’s bid for state attorney general before the Michigan GOP endorsed Matthew DePerno to run against Nessel, has litigated past cases against COVID-19 health measures and gender identity protections. He represented Owosso barber Karl Manke, who defied Whitmer’s stay-home orders and opened his shop at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kallman also sued the Williamston School District for adopting a nondiscrimination policy related to transgender students, as well as Planet Fitness for allowing transgender women to use the women’s locker room.

Macomb County Prosecutor Peter Lucido, who faced numerous allegations of sexual harassment while serving as a Republican in the state Senate, also said he would uphold an abortion ban “if it’s on the books.”

“I took an oath of office to uphold the law, the constitution of this state and the Constitution of the United States,” Lucido told the Detroit Free Press prior to Roe v. Wade being overturned.

In 2020, a Senate Business Office investigation into Lucido found that the GOP lawmaker engaged in “inappropriate workplace behavior” during his time as a state senator that “demonstrates an unfortunate pattern of behavior” after three women made their allegations public. A fourth woman later came forward in March 2021. Lucido denied those allegations. Earlier this year, Macomb County hired a law firm to investigate “complaints alleging unlawful discrimination and/or harassment” about Lucido.

Lucido under investigation for alleged sexual harassment at Macomb Co. office

As for abortion, police have not yet brought forward any cases to the prosecutors, and a Michigan State Police spokesperson said they are not currently enforcing the 1931 law.

“Our members have been advised to take any complaints they receive and document them, but to conduct no further investigation,” Michigan State Police spokesperson Shanon Banner wrote in an email.

Becker said in a prepared statement issued Monday that he does not “believe it proper for me to simply ignore a law/any law that was passed by the Michigan Legislature and signed by the Governor.”

The Kent County prosecutor went on to say that the 1931 law “does not allow for charges to be filed against the woman seeking or getting an abortion” but “only allows for charges to be filed against a doctor performing an abortion.”

Jackson County Prosecutor Jerry Jarzynka told the Advance on Tuesday that because none of the state’s 83 county prosecutors were involved in the Planned Parenthood case for which the Court of Claims judge issued the injunction that his office still needs to enforce the 1931 law.

“There is a statute on the books that basically prohibits abortion except for the life of the mother,” Jarzynka said, referring to the provision in the law that states an abortion can take place if the pregnant person’s life is in danger. “That’s the law right now, and as a prosecutor I’m going to follow the law.

“Basically, if the police or law enforcement agency brings me a case. … I will look at it as I will any other criminal violation that’s alleged,” Jarzynka continued. “As a prosecutor, I can’t ignore the law.”

Nessel and Whitmer, both Democrats, said the Republican prosecutors’ claims are wrong and have issued repeated statements following the end of Roe that health care workers providing abortion care cannot be prosecuted.

“As it currently stands, providing abortion care in Michigan cannot be prosecuted, and I encourage those with appointments to move forward as scheduled and consult with their doctors,” Nessel said in a prepared statement. “Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling last week, I remain committed to ensuring a woman’s right to choose and will continue to fight against every attempt to limit access to care. This includes ensuring Michiganders are properly informed regarding the current state court battle that is far from over.”

Phenicie said “any prosecutors who disregard” the injunction “could face contempt proceedings.”

On May 17, Court of Claims Judge Elizabeth Gleicher issued a preliminary injunction in Planned Parenthood of Michigan v. Attorney General of the State of Michigan.

Nessel said the injunction bars her office and all 83 county prosecutors from enforcing the 1931 law. Gleicher could not be reached for comment.

Gleicher determined that without an injunction, plaintiffs and their patients “face a serious danger of irreparable harm if prevented from accessing abortion services.”

The case is moving forward, and Gleicher ultimately will decide whether or not to enter a permanent injunction if she finds the 1931 statute unconstitutional.

Other county prosecutors have said they will follow the injunction and not enforce the 1931 law, including Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald, a Democrat.

McDonald said in a prepared statement issued Friday that her office “will not use its limited resources to prosecute any woman or health care provider for a safe medical decision affecting their body.

“Instead, we will dedicate our limited resources for the prosecution of serious crimes, like gun violence, and the pursuit of justice for all,” McDonald continued.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who also is a Democrat, did not respond to a request for comment, but she has previously said that her office will not enforce the 1931 abortion ban.

There’s another lawsuit that could impact abortion access in Michigan.

Whitmer has filed a lawsuit asking the state Supreme Court to strike down the 1931 law. Whitmer on Friday filed a motion urging the state Supreme Court to immediately consider her lawsuit. On Monday, she sent a notice to the Supreme Court again asking justices to take up her suit to avoid further confusion around the 1931 law.

“Right now, abortion remains safe and legal in Michigan because of a court order temporarily blocking enforcement of the state’s 1931 abortion ban,” Whitmer said in a prepared statement. “But in the wake of the decision … overturning Roe, certain county prosecutors and health providers have expressed confusion about the current legal status of abortion in Michigan.”

Whitmer noted in her court filing Monday that confusion around the 1931 law has resulted in health officials issuing mixed messages about abortion, including at the state’s largest health health system, BHSH System. The system is a merger of the Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health and Beaumont Health, which serves Southeast Michigan.

On Friday, BHSH System said it would follow the 1931 law. Hours later, BHSH System President and CEO Tina Freese Decker said her organization would continue to provide abortions when a pregnant person’s life was at risk. On Saturday night, the health system officially announced it would reinstate its previous policy of terminating pregnancies “when medically necessary.”

“At present, the current legal landscape regarding abortion in our state is unclear and uncertain,” BHSH said in a prepared statement. “We are aware of the 1931 Michigan law. However, given the uncertainties and confusion surrounding its enforcement, until there is clarity, we will continue our practice of providing abortions when medically necessary.”

BHSH said “we have not and will not perform elective abortions.”

Other health care facilities said the end of Roe v. Wade would not affect its care.

“The reversal of the Roe v Wade decision will not impact any patient care at Sparrow Health System at this time,” Sparrow Hospital said in a statement provided to the Advance on Tuesday. “Safe access to care for all mothers-to-be continues to be available at all Sparrow Health System locations.”

While the status of abortion rights in Michigan following Friday’s SCOTUS decision may be causing confusion at some health facilities, Phenicie said that was far from the case at Planned Parenthood. In fact, she noted a surge of people have reached out to Planned Parenthood of Michigan in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned.

“When the Supreme Court case was announced on Friday, our patient call center volume doubled,” Phenicie said. “Over the weekend, we’ve seen a 50% increase in requests for abortion appointments over the prior week.”

While she could not confirm this was definitely the case, Phenicie said she expects that increase in appointments is for individuals living in states where abortion is now outlawed.

On Monday, physicians from across Michigan called for abortion to remain legal in Michigan. Dr. Rob Davidson, an emergency physician in West Michigan and the executive director of the Committee to Protect Health Care, urged voters to back the Reproductive Freedom For All ballot initiative.

Michiganders may be able to vote on a reproductive rights ballot initiative in the November election. The proposal would enshrine the right to abortion in the Michigan state Constitution. The groups behind the proposal — the ACLU of Michigan, Planned Parenthood of Michigan and Michigan Voices — are currently working to secure the necessary signatures for the proposal to be on the ballot. The proposal would also amend the Constitution to include people’s right to birth control, miscarriage care and prenatal care.


Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

'He still hopes to run for governor?' Experts say Ryan Kelley’s arrest is emblematic of growing far-right violence

After Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley was arrested Thursday by the FBI on charges related to his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, during which supporters of former President Donald Trump attempted to overthrow the United States government, his campaign posted two words on social media: “Political Prisoner.”

This sentiment — that Kelley’s arrest is rooted in Democratic politics and not the law — isone that far-right commentators like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and a parade of GOP officials and organizations in Michigan, including the Michigan Republican Party, are pushing without evidence. (Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser, for example, said Democrats are “weaponizing our justice system” and GOP gubernatorial candidate Garrett Soldano called the FBI an “arm of the Democrat Party.”)

While this messaging is almost certain to boost Kelley’s name recognition as he attempts to defeat his four Republican opponents on the ballot in a tumultuous primary, it may not lend him credibility if he lands in the general election against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Moreover, it’s emblematic of the far-right extremism and violence that has been growing in the United States for years and the conspiracy theories that are galvanizing GOP political campaigns in Michigan, political experts said.

“[Kelley’s] in a small field of mostly unknowns,” Matt Grossmann, a political science professor at Michigan State University, said of the GOP’s contenders for governor. “His name ID will go up but will be associated with what’s normally considered as negative news. He’ll have to turn it as being a political attack to be successful.”

“I still think the other candidates have a pretty easy response, which is some sympathy but also, ‘OK, this is not a good way to win a gubernatorial election,’” Grossmann continued.

There’s been an undercurrent to diminish what happened on Jan. 6. It was a heinous attack on our government, and regardless of your politics it should disgust and horrify any of us.

– Barbara McQuade, University of Michigan law professor who served as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan

Currently, the GOP gubernatorial candidates that will be on the Aug. 2 ballot are: Kelley; Soldano, a chiropractor; businessman Kevin Rinke; right-wing personality Tudor Dixon; and the Rev. Ralph Rebandt. Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who the state Bureau of Elections ruled could not be on the ballot after his campaign submitted thousands of fraudulent petition signatures, this week announced he will run as a write-in candidate.

Perhaps more than anything, experts said, Kelley’s arrest is a reminder that actions have consequences and that those who — allegedly, in Kelley’s case — broke the law by participating in a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the government from certifying the results of the 2020 election won by President Joe Biden should be held accountable.

“The suggestion that anybody is above the law is really deeply disturbing,” said Barbara McQuade, a law professor at the University of Michigan who served as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. “There’s been an undercurrent to diminish what happened on Jan. 6. It was a heinous attack on our government, and regardless of your politics it should disgust and horrify any of us.”

Kelley traveled to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, to take part in the protests that preceded the attempted coup and attack on the Capitol building that were encouraged by former President Donald Trump and meant to stop the peaceful transfer of power between administrations for the first time in U.S. history.

The 40-year-old real estate broker from Allendale Township in West Michigan was arraigned Thursday afternoon on four misdemeanor charges: knowingly entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds on Jan. 6, disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds, knowingly engaging in any act of physical violence against person or property in any restricted building or grounds, and willfully injuring or committing any depredation against any property of the United States.

According to court documents, the FBI received numerous tips that Kelley had been involved in the Jan. 6 attack. An FBI agent said in a court filing that Kelley allegedly used his cell phone to “film the crowd assaulting and pushing past U.S. Capitol Police officers” and used “his hands to support another rioter” who pulled down a metal barricade. He also allegedly gestured “to the crowd, consistently indicating” that people should move towards the Capitol entrance.

Kelley’s arrest came the day that public congressional hearings on the Jan. 6 Capitol attack began. Led by the U.S. House committee investigating the attack, the hearings are the culmination of a widespread investigation that has included more than 1,000 interviews — including with Michigan officials like Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson — reviews of some 125,000 records, and subpoenas of people from Michigan and six other states who attempted to overthrow the election by submitting electoral certificates falsely showing that Trump won.

Over the course of two hours, Chair Bennie G. Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, focused on presenting new information about the Jan. 6 attack that included testimony that Trump endorsed the hanging of former Vice President Mike Pence and Trump cabinet members considering invoking the 25th Amendment to remove the former president from office. Much of the hearing focused on the role the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, violent far-right groups that supported Trump, played in the attack.

A Capitol police officer, Caroline Edwards, who was seriously injured by the pro-Trump mob described the Jan. 6 attack as a “war scene.”

“I saw officers on the ground,” said Edwards, who was one of about 150 officers injured in the attack. “I saw officers on the ground. They were bleeding. They were throwing up … I was slipping on people’s blood. It was carnage. It was chaos.”

The FBI on Thursday executed a search warrant at Kelley’s home, which McQuade said “could bring more charges and more serious charges.” The gubernatorial candidate is one of more than 800 people who have been arrested on charges related to the Jan. 6 insurrection. (A database of everyone arrested and their accompanying charges can be found here.)

Kelley could not be reached for comment, but he has said in the past that he did not enter the Capitol building nor fight law enforcement on Jan. 6.

“As far as going through any barricades, or doing anything like that, I never took part in any forceful anything,” Kelley told MLive in March of 2021. “Once things started getting crazy, I left.”

While Kelley’s arrest certainly has ramifications for his campaign and the gubernatorial race in general, it’s about far more than Kelley and his opponents, experts said. The charges against him are symbolic of an increasingly radicalized Republican Party and the right-wing extremism and violence that has grown in recent years.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, there have been about 450 U.S. murders committed by political extremists over the past decade – 75% of which were committed by right-wing extremists. Left-wing extremists were responsible for 4%.

Kelley has ridden his political rise on a wave of conspiracy theories — he has repeatedly made the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. He has pushed a barrage of disinformation about COVID-19, refusing to participate in last week’s Mackinac Policy Conference gubernatorial debate in protest of a vaccine requirement, even though it was waived for candidats and debate attendees.

Kelley also is the founder of the American Patriot Council, a right-wing group that has called for the arrests of such Democratic leaders as Whitmer, state Attorney General Dana Nessel and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

Kelley has faced controversy before, including being asked to step down from the Allendale Township Planning Commission over his relationship with one of the men charged in the alleged plot to kidnap and kill Whitmer and his clashes with individuals calling for the removal of a Confederate statue in Allendale in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

“You have people seeking office who are promoting these theories that used to be considered very fringey — not only promoting theories but actively taking part” in the Jan. 6 attack, said Javed Ali, an associate professor of practice at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Policy who has served in senior roles at the FBI, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and National Security Council.

“This is a pretty serious development, and he still hopes to run for governor?” Ali said of the charges against Kelley.

A long list of political experts have previously told the Advance that the Michigan GOP, and the national Republican Party, have increasingly promoted conspiracy theories, including QAnon, as the party has shifted further to the right in a move that the experts said is damaging democratic institutions, fueling additional conspiratorial thinking and creating a political landscape in which Republicans face backlash for not supporting conspiracy theories.

The current wave of far-right terrorism in the United States began nearly 15 years ago following the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president; economic challenges; a rise in social media; and an “uptick in what I would call nativist politics,” Ali said.

“I think we’re going to be dealing with this far-right threat in the U.S. for years to come,” Ali said. “It’s not going away.”

That, however, translates to a country on a potential slide to authoritarianism, experts said.

“If you use violence to support your ideas, then we lose what we have always valued as a democracy,” McQuade said.

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Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

'Deeply disturbing: GOP candidate's arrest is emblematic of growing far-right extremism, experts say

After Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley was arrested Thursday by the FBI on charges related to his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, during which supporters of former President Donald Trump attempted to overthrow the United States government, his campaign posted two words on social media: “Political Prisoner.”

This sentiment — that Kelley’s arrest is rooted in Democratic politics and not the law — is one that far-right commentators like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and a parade of GOP officials and organizations in Michigan, including the Michigan Republican Party, are pushing without evidence. (Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser, for example, said Democrats are “weaponizing our justice system” and GOP gubernatorial candidate Garrett Soldano called the FBI an “arm of the Democrat Party.”)

While this messaging is almost certain to boost Kelley’s name recognition as he attempts to defeat his four Republican opponents on the ballot in a tumultuous primary, it may not lend him credibility if he lands in the general election against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Moreover, it’s emblematic of the far-right extremism and violence that has been growing in the United States for years and the conspiracy theories that are galvanizing GOP political campaigns in Michigan, political experts said.

“[Kelley’s] in a small field of mostly unknowns,” Matt Grossmann, a political science professor at Michigan State University, said of the GOP’s contenders for governor. “His name ID will go up but will be associated with what’s normally considered as negative news. He’ll have to turn it as being a political attack to be successful.”

“I still think the other candidates have a pretty easy response, which is some sympathy but also, ‘OK, this is not a good way to win a gubernatorial election,’” Grossmann continued.

Currently, the GOP gubernatorial candidates that will be on the Aug. 2 ballot are: Kelley; Soldano, a chiropractor; businessman Kevin Rinke; right-wing personality Tudor Dixon; and the Rev. Ralph Rebandt. Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who the state Bureau of Elections ruled could not be on the ballot after his campaign submitted thousands of fraudulent petition signatures, this week announced he will run as a write-in candidate.

Perhaps more than anything, experts said, Kelley’s arrest is a reminder that actions have consequences and that those who — allegedly, in Kelley’s case — broke the law by participating in a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the government from certifying the results of the 2020 election won by President Joe Biden should be held accountable.

“The suggestion that anybody is above the law is really deeply disturbing,” said Barbara McQuade, a law professor at the University of Michigan who served as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. “There’s been an undercurrent to diminish what happened on Jan. 6. It was a heinous attack on our government, and regardless of your politics it should disgust and horrify any of us.”

Kelley traveled to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, to take part in the protests that preceded the attempted coup and attack on the Capitol building that were encouraged by former President Donald Trump and meant to stop the peaceful transfer of power between administrations for the first time in U.S. history.

The 40-year-old real estate broker from Allendale Township in West Michigan was arraigned Thursday afternoon on four misdemeanor charges: knowingly entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds on Jan. 6, disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds, knowingly engaging in any act of physical violence against person or property in any restricted building or grounds, and willfully injuring or committing any depredation against any property of the United States.

According to court documents, the FBI received numerous tips that Kelley had been involved in the Jan. 6 attack. An FBI agent said in a court filing that Kelley allegedly used his cell phone to “film the crowd assaulting and pushing past U.S. Capitol Police officers” and used “his hands to support another rioter” who pulled down a metal barricade. He also allegedly gestured “to the crowd, consistently indicating” that people should move towards the Capitol entrance.

Kelley’s arrest came the day that public congressional hearings on the Jan. 6 Capitol attack began. Led by the U.S. House committee investigating the attack, the hearings are the culmination of a widespread investigation that has included more than 1,000 interviews — including with Michigan officials like Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson — reviews of some 125,000 records, and subpoenas of people from Michigan and six other states who attempted to overthrow the election by submitting electoral certificates falsely showing that Trump won.

Over the course of two hours, Chair Bennie G. Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, focused on presenting new information about the Jan. 6 attack that included testimony that Trump endorsed the hanging of former Vice President Mike Pence and Trump cabinet members considering invoking the 25th Amendment to remove the former president from office. Much of the hearing focused on the role the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, violent far-right groups that supported Trump, played in the attack.

A Capitol police officer, Caroline Edwards, who was seriously injured by the pro-Trump mob described the Jan. 6 attack as a “war scene.”

“I saw officers on the ground,” said Edwards, who was one of about 150 officers injured in the attack. “I saw officers on the ground. They were bleeding. They were throwing up … I was slipping on people’s blood. It was carnage. It was chaos.”

The FBI on Thursday executed a search warrant at Kelley’s home, which McQuade said “could bring more charges and more serious charges.” The gubernatorial candidate is one of more than 800 people who have been arrested on charges related to the Jan. 6 insurrection. (A database of everyone arrested and their accompanying charges can be found here.)

Kelley could not be reached for comment, but he has said in the past that he did not enter the Capitol building nor fight law enforcement on Jan. 6.

“As far as going through any barricades, or doing anything like that, I never took part in any forceful anything,” Kelley told MLive in March of 2021. “Once things started getting crazy, I left.”

While Kelley’s arrest certainly has ramifications for his campaign and the gubernatorial race in general, it’s about far more than Kelley and his opponents, experts said. The charges against him are symbolic of an increasingly radicalized Republican Party and the right-wing extremism and violence that has grown in recent years.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, there have been about 450 U.S. murders committed by political extremists over the past decade – 75% of which were committed by right-wing extremists. Left-wing extremists were responsible for 4%.

Kelley has ridden his political rise on a wave of conspiracy theories — he has repeatedly made the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. He has pushed a barrage of disinformation about COVID-19, refusing to participate in last week’s Mackinac Policy Conference gubernatorial debate in protest of a vaccine requirement, even though it was waived for candidates and debate attendees.

Kelley also is the founder of the American Patriot Council, a right-wing group that has called for the arrests of such Democratic leaders as Whitmer, state Attorney General Dana Nessel and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

Kelley has faced controversy before, including being asked to step down from the Allendale Township Planning Commission over his relationship with one of the men charged in the alleged plot to kidnap and kill Whitmer and his clashes with individuals calling for the removal of a Confederate statue in Allendale in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

“You have people seeking office who are promoting these theories that used to be considered very fringey — not only promoting theories but actively taking part” in the Jan. 6 attack, said Javed Ali, an associate professor of practice at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Policy who has served in senior roles at the FBI, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and National Security Council.

“This is a pretty serious development, and he still hopes to run for governor?” Ali said of the charges against Kelley.

A long list of political experts have previously told the Advance that the Michigan GOP, and the national Republican Party, have increasingly promoted conspiracy theories, including QAnon, as the party has shifted further to the right in a move that the experts said is damaging democratic institutions, fueling additional conspiratorial thinking and creating a political landscape in which Republicans face backlash for not supporting conspiracy theories.

The current wave of far-right terrorism in the United States began nearly 15 years ago following the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president; economic challenges; a rise in social media; and an “uptick in what I would call nativist politics,” Ali said.

“I think we’re going to be dealing with this far-right threat in the U.S. for years to come,” Ali said. “It’s not going away.”

That, however, translates to a country on a potential slide to authoritarianism, experts said.

“If you use violence to support your ideas, then we lose what we have always valued as a democracy,” McQuade said.


Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

US at risk of becoming authoritarian state after Jan. 6 insurrection, experts say

Former President Donald Trump and his Republican allies, including many in Michigan, are leading a years-long attack on American democracy that could result in the country being run by an authoritarian government not elected by the people, political experts said during a Wednesday press conference regarding the upcoming Congressional hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“I used to work at the State Department, and I know from my time there that what happens in a country where there’s an attempt to overturn Democratic elections can lead to terrible results,” Debra Perlin, the policy director at the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said at the press conference. “That leads to authoritarian states; it leads to undemocratic elections. And if what happened on Jan. 6 happened in any other country, we would have called that undemocratic. And so that’s important for us to keep in mind as we move forward into these hearings and recognize the importance of what happened and make sure that there’s accountability so it doesn’t happen here again.”

Perlin was part of a group of political experts that spoke during Wednesday’s press conference held by the Defend Democracy Project, a national campaign promoting the importance of the public hearings into the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection that was led by Trump supporters attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

President Joe Biden won the 2020 election, and his victory has been confirmed by a steady stream of Republican-led investigations and audits. Led by a bipartisan U.S. House committee investigating the insurrection, the Jan. 6 hearings will begin on Thursday and will be available for the public to watch.

The hearings are the culmination of a widespread investigation that has included more than 1,000 interviews – including with Michigan officials like Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson – reviews of some 125,000 records, and subpoenas of people from Michigan and six other states who attempted to overthrow the election by submitting electoral certificates falsely showing that Trump won.

The evidence collected by the committee suggests a “coordinated, multi-step effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and prevent the transfer of power,” according to a Tuesday statement from the committee.

“In America, as in Michigan, the voters decide who our leaders are,” Christina Schlitt, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan, said at the press conference. “The perpetrators of the Jan. 6 attack used violence in an effort to invalidate the will of the people in an election that was proven fair and secure.

“Those involved in the Jan. 6 attack must be held accountable for their actions,” Schlitt continued. “We cannot allow our leaders to violently control the outcome of our elections for their own gain. These special hearings into the actions of those who attacked our democracy have a direct bearing in Michigan. The attacks on voting rights are ongoing. The Michigan Legislature put up more barriers through a number of voter suppression bills…, making it more difficult for millions of Michigan voters, even when voters in Michigan voted overwhelmingly in 2018 to make voting more convenient and more accessible.”

These attacks on democracy have led the state and country to an alarming place in which the future of fair elections are not guaranteed, experts said.

“I had the opportunity to serve as a firefighter back in the 80s here in the city of Detroit, and this moment is the equivalent of a five-alarm fire,” said Heaster Wheeler, the political education director for the NAACP’s Detroit branch.

Republican efforts to restrict voting across the country, including in Michigan, are directly tied to the conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 attack and result in already marginalized voters, including Black Americans, being further disenfranchised, Wheeler said.

“Our former president and his allies, including those in the Michigan Legislature, want to erect barriers to voters in underserved communities, African-American communities, Latino and Hispanic communities, low-income voters, people with disabilities, and others will have a more difficult time [voting],” Wheeler said.

Dianne Byrum, a former Democratic legislative leader and current Michigan State University trustee who moderated the press conference, said the upcoming Jan. 6 hearings are “based on well-established facts.”

“In Michigan, these facts include such things as Trump calling Monica Palmer, chair of Wayne County’s Board of Canvassers, to ask her to rescind to certify Biden’s victory in the county,” Byrum said. “The Trump campaign attempted to convince Antrim County’s prosecutor to seize voting machines for Trump representatives…Trump campaign officials, led by Rudy Giuliani, oversaw efforts to put forward a slate of 16 illegitimate electors in Michigan, including [Michigan Republican National Committeewoman] Kathy Berden and [Michigan secretary] Mayra Rodriguez, who are both under subpoena by the committee.”

The continued fallout from the Jan. 6 attack poses mounting danger to the future of democracy in the United States, experts said Wednesday.

“It’s not just about an attack on the Capitol or the Congress,” Defend Democracy Project Co-Chair Leslie Dach said. “It’s an attack on our country and our fundamental principles, and it’s an attack that continues to this day. These efforts to deny Americans the right to choose their own leaders is still very much underway.”

In Michigan, for example, Byrum pointed out that high-profile Republicans – including lawmakers and candidates running for governor and secretary of state – continue to espouse conspiracy theories that Trump won the 2020 election.

“MAGA Republican candidate for Michigan Secretary of State Kristina Karamo has frequently alleged election fraud and joined an ‘American First’ coalition seeking to elect QAnon-friendly Republican secretaries of state in the 2022 midterm elections,” Byrum said. “Matthew DePerno, a Trump-endorsed candidate for [Michigan] attorney general, has declared a broad mandate to use election conspiracy theories to prosecute public officials suspected of participating in so-called election fraud during the 2020 election. So the stakes are high, and we have facts that have presented themselves here in Michigan to be concerned about.”

Perlin noted her organization recently released a report with the Brookings Institute, a centrist Washington D.C.-based think tank, that alleged there is “significant evidence” that Trump and several of his allies – including outside counsel John Eastman, administration lawyer Jeffrey Clark and former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows – “violated federal and state laws and should be held criminally responsible.”

“It’s really important for us to keep in mind that Trump knew he lost a free and fair election … so any defense of Trump’s actions really are not appropriate,” Perlin said.


Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

Michigan Republicans advance anti-CRT bill that educators say will censor teachers

Republican members of the Michigan Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee voted on Tuesday to advance legislation that education officials said is dividing parents and teachers and would silence teachers attempting to discuss race and racism.

“We have kids being literally slaughtered in their classrooms across the country, and yet these right-wing extremists are focused instead on censoring educators from using their expertise to teach students,” Michigan Education Association (MEA) spokesperson Thomas Morgan said of GOP lawmakers supporting House Bill 5097.

The MEA is a labor union that represents about 120,000 teachers and other education workers in Michigan.

Introduced by state Rep. Andrew Beeler (R-Ft. Gratiot) and passed by the House in November, House Bill 5097 would prohibit schools from including “any form of race or gender stereotyping” in their curricula. It follows a nationwide right-wing trend to ban “critical race theory,” though Beeler’s bill does not explicitly name CRT — a decades-old college-level academic theory that explores systemic racism and is not taught in the vast majority of K-12 schools in Michigan.

The committee’s support on Tuesday paves the way for a possible vote from the full Senate. A spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did not respond to a request for comment, but education officials said they expect the governor would veto the bill if it comes to her desk.

Beeler said during Tuesday’s hearing that his bill is an attempt to ban racial and gender stereotyping in schools.

“From emancipation to women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement, events throughout American history exemplify the ideas that all men are created equal; that content of character — not skin color — defines a person; and that racism and sexism in any form have no place in our society,” Beeler said in a November statement. “My plan will ensure we are training our children to embrace the ideas that have carried our country away from racial and gender-based stereotypes, and toward a more unified and better future.”

But educators and Democratic lawmakers said the bill would do the opposite and instead would make teachers fearful of having honest conversations around the country’s history of slavery and the ongoing impact that has on Black Americans, among other discussions around systemic racism.

The two Democratic members of the Senate committee, Sens. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) and Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), walked out on Tuesday’s hearing and criticized it as another attempt by the GOP to whitewash history and force educators to omit facts about the history of institutionalized racism in the United States.

“I’m tired of white legislators like Rep. Beeler and [Education and Career Readiness] Chair Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) lecturing Black people that the United States is post-racial and that things like ‘privilege’ or ‘oppression’ based on race no longer exist,” Polehanki said in a press release. “Rep. Beeler’s bill is yet another in a long line of ‘happy history’ bills introduced by Republicans, which are designed to terrify teachers into avoiding any meaningful discussion about racial discrimination on pain of losing their jobs or causing school funding to be withheld.”

Their sponsored legislation, Senate Bill 460, that would withhold 5% of a district’s funds if it was determined a district educator was teaching critical race theory or concepts related to it. The Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee voted to advance the bill in late October; it has not been voted on by the full Senate.

“House Bill 5097 is not a serious bill from a serious person, and to entertain it devalues our work here as legislators and as former educators,” Geiss said in a press release. “This bill does nothing to address the pressing issues we have in education policy while wasting time and stirring up the hysterical conspiracy theorists of their base.”

Numerous educators and educational organizations have raised concerns about House Bill 5097. In January, the state Board of Education adopted a resolution opposing both House Bill 5097 and Senate Bill 460, saying they would have a “chilling effect on local teachers.”

Lincoln Stocks — a history teacher at Eastpointe Community Schools, an AFT Michigan vice president, and the president of the Eastpointe Federation of Educators — said “bills like this are incredibly dangerous” and that “as a white history teacher who believes that honest education is critical I am afraid for what this could mean for educators and students.”

Under this law, educators would be unable to teach kids the truth about racial disparities in America without risking their own livelihoods,” Stocks said in a press release from AFT Michigan, a union representing about 35,000 educators and health care providers. “Michiganders know the truth: Systemic racism is real and shapes our communities, and ignoring that ugly truth won’t make it go away. I firmly oppose HB-5097, and I hope our lawmakers will listen to educators and school communities and make the right decision to protect honesty in education.”

Morgan said Tuesday that the GOP bill is “clearly an election year stunt designed to divide parents and educators.

“It’s all a coordinated strategy designed to drive a wedge between parents and their kids’ teachers,” he said. “…They are more concerned with manufacturing controversy designed to fire up a political base, and it’s hurting our kids. It’s exacerbating our educator shortage, and all these attacks might work for electoral purposes but it’s disgusting because it’s hurting our kids and hurting our schools.”

Morgan said such attacks on educators have both driven teachers from the field and deter others from pursuing teaching. Because of the GOP’s focus on pushing legislation around CRT, Morgan said teachers are left scared to address issues of race.

“We have plenty of history teachers who could be afraid to teach about slavery or Jim Crow because it might upset somebody,” he said. “All our members want is to be able to teach facts. They want to teach the facts about history and give kids the skills they need to make their own conclusions and form their own opinions.”


Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

'They don’t care if you live or die, but they want you to make them coffee'

KC Laskey can count the number of students who usually wear masks in her son’s kindergarten classroom in West Michigan on one hand — and the number of COVID-19 cases in his classroom last week on two.
“He is one of two wearing masks at school; since omicron quieted down, there have been two wearing masks,” said Laskey, who lives in Grand Rapids. “However, this week there are four joining him; there were six COVID cases in the class last week. And we were not notified by the school; we found out through text chains.”

A drop in masking amidst a new rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations is a story being told across the state and country. While there have long been vocal anti-maskers spewing conspiracy-filled rage at school board and local government meetings — as well as in the Michigan Legislature — masking among the general public has declined.

About half of Americans have worn a mask — something that studies have shown time and again to be effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and which the country’s major medical organizations have backed — outside their house in the past seven days, according to a Gallup poll released May 11. Gallup noted that’s a number not seen since April 2020, a time when we were just getting used to pandemic practices.

And for the first time since pollsters started asking Americans about their opinions on state or local governments requiring masks in public places, an Axios/Ipsos survey from April reported the majority of participants — 56% — were opposed to the mandates.

As has been the case for most of the pandemic, Democrats are more willing than Republicans to wear masks and adopt other pandemic-related health precautions. According to a Pew Research poll released May 11, 42% of Democrats say they’ve been wearing a mask frequently when inside stores and businesses compared to 14% of Republicans.

Part of the reason a good chunk of our society isn’t wearing masks, public health experts said, is rooted in COVID-19 fatigue. We, as a society, just don’t want there to be a pandemic. We’re tired of wearing masks; we’re tired of thinking of this virus that has upended our lives for more than two years.

The majority of the population in both the state and country have gotten vaccinated (though only about one-third in Michigan have been vaccinated and boosted), and people want to fill concert halls and restaurants. We want our lives to be that ever-ubiquitous goal cited throughout the pandemic: normal.

Here’s the thing, medical professionals, parents and business owners who continue to don masks told the Advance: Life isn’t normal. There’s still a pandemic.

True, cases and hospitalizations are far less than they were during a months-long surge this past fall and winter. But as mask requirements are dropped from schools to public transportation and businesses, COVID-19 is still here, still spreading, and still evading our immunity with its constant mutations. A pandemic that has killed 36,064 Michiganders and more than 1 million people in the United States continues to claim lives.

“I think you still have to be cautious,” said Dr. Peter Gulick, an infectious disease expert and a professor of medicine at Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine who also works with HIV patients through the Ingham County Health Department. “You can’t put down your guard and say nobody’s sick. People are sick.

“I still wear masks,” Gulick continued. “I work at the Health Department in Lansing, and we’re all required to wear masks here, but even if we weren’t I’d wear one. I wear a mask in restaurants; I take it off to eat. I wear a mask when I’m in a room that’s poorly ventilated. I wore a mask at my son’s graduation. I work out at a gym, and I’m the only one who wears a mask. Sometimes when you wear a mask, people look at you, but most times they leave you alone. I could care less; I wear it because I don’t want to get COVID. I still think the mask is a very important entity; I think it can’t go away.”

While fewer people are wearing masks, there are still plenty of those who agree with Gulick and who continue to prioritize donning a face covering in various places, from classrooms to grocery stores and at work.

The details behind people wearing masks vary — of those the Advance interviewed, some have relatives battling cancer; others have seen parents fighting for their lives on ventilators — but the sentiment that kept being repeated in interviews was: We don’t know what other people are going through, and if we can prevent people from getting sick and dying by wearing a mask, why wouldn’t we?

It’s really heartbreaking to see no one cares about protecting the tiniest people.

– KC Laskey, a Grand Rapids resident and parent of three young children

“We’ve learned a lot [about preventing COVID-19], and hopefully people don’t throw it all out the window,” said Laskey, who continues to wear a mask along with her husband and three small sons, one in kindergarten, another in preschool and one who was born two years ago, at the start of the pandemic. “I hope people start caring more about each other.”

“We know families undergoing cancer treatments or living with grandparents,” she added. “All my children are highly asthmatic, and I’m asthmatic. You don’t know what’s going on in anybody’s life.”

Plus, Laskey noted, there are still millions in the United States under age 5 who don’t yet have access to a COVID-19 vaccine.

“It’s really heartbreaking to see no one cares about protecting the tiniest people,” she said.

In addition to those still unable to access a vaccine, millions more are immunocompromised — people who, for example, are undergoing chemo treatments or have gotten an organ transplant — and are particularly susceptible to serious illness, even if they’ve been vaccinated.

And while getting vaccinated and boosted almost guarantees you won’t end up in the hospital with a serious case of COVID-19 if you’re younger and healthier, there are still risks — and it doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get what’s known as “long COVID.” Long COVID is a chronic illness that leaves individuals, including children, living with a wide variety of often debilitating COVID symptoms for months, or even longer, past their original COVID diagnosis.

The number of people suffering from prolonged COVID-19 symptoms isn’t fully known, but Gulick and other health experts said it likely ranges between 30% and 50% of those who have gotten the virus.

Gulick and Dr. Nirali Bora, the medical director at the Kent County Health Department in West Michigan, noted that even people who are vaccinated, boosted and end up having minor COVID-19 cases, including being asymptomatic, can get long COVID.

“Sometimes I worry more about post-COVID syndrome than the actual acute COVID,” Gulick said, using another term for long COVID. “I’ve seen some people in my clinic [with long COVID], and they’re so debilitated that they have to go on disability.”

Masks are about more than physical health

Since the start of the pandemic, Cara Nader, the owner of Strange Matter Coffee in Lansing, has taken the health precautions seriously. She has worn masks; she didn’t go to restaurants for two years or travel anywhere.

And as other businesses dropped mask requirements during the surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations over the fall and winter, Strange Matter was still requiring them of both workers and customers.

“Most of our decisions have been made through anonymous staff surveys, and we do that about once a month, or if there’s a big change in case count we’ll send out a survey,” Nader said of the current decision to require employees to wear masks and “strongly recommend” that customers do as well.

“We’ve only had it not mandatory for about a month for customers, and at least 75% of customers are still masked in the shop,” Nader said.

From the start of the pandemic, Nader said it’s been “such a serious and important thing for us to promote mask wearing.”

“I really think we don’t get a lot of blowback from it; we’ve gotten rid of the anti-maskers for our pro-choice stances, our fundraisers for Planned Parenthood; our customers were already on board with the way we do things,” Nader said.

She was referring to the fact that individuals against masking have, for most of the pandemic, been right-wingers often prone to believing in conspiracy theories about COVID and the 2020 election. Anti-mask rallies in Michigan and across the country have typically been filled with GOP officials, militia members, election conspiracy theorists, QAnon supporters and anti-vaxxers.

For Nader, mask wearing is also about more than physical health. It’s about making sure her staff — some of whom have gotten seriously ill with COVID-19 and have seen friends and family members get sick and die from the virus — know there are plenty of people who recognize the seriousness of the pandemic, even when it seems like so many want to forget it entirely.

“The majority of staff have had experiences with COVID, whether personal or in their family — knowing people who are seriously ill or passed away,” said Nader, who got COVID-19 in January 2021 and has been suffering from long COVID since then. “Masking is one of the things we can do to make us as a staff feel more safe. A lot of people think it’s about them — ‘I don’t want to wear a mask’ — but it’s not about you. It’s about the people you come into contact with in public.”

There have been people who have refused to wear masks in the shop and have gotten angry and combative with workers, which Nader said has “been a very stressful experience for staff having to interact with people who are rude and aggressive.”

“They don’t care if you live or die, but they want you to make them coffee,” Nader said. “How do you deal with that, that there’s a portion of the population that just doesn’t care if you live or die?”

That deeply resonates with Nader herself as she navigates a life with long COVID.

“I’ve been suffering from long COVID for over a year now, and it’s destroyed my ability to function, honestly,” she said. “It’s changed our priorities. It’s definitely health over coffee profit. If someone won’t wear a mask, I don’t need that money. Or maybe I do, but it’s not worth it to me.”

They don’t care if you live or die, but they want you to make them coffee. How do you deal with that, that there’s a portion of the population that just doesn’t care if you live or die?

– Cara Nader, the owner of Strange Matter Coffee in Lansing

At one point, the long COVID symptoms were so bad that Nader couldn’t catch her breath while speaking a sentence. While she “can speak and breathe now,” the “fatigue and lung damage are super-terrible.”

“I’m hopefully starting the post-COVID clinic at [the University of Michigan] soon, but the doctors have no idea what to do,” she said. “My heart rate never drops below 100 now. When I go for a 10-minute walk, it will go up to 150, 170.

“The lingering symptoms are really, really hard, and I have no idea how somebody who doesn’t have the privilege I do of running my own business and making my own schedule lives,” she continued. “If I had to punch a clock and work eight hours a day, I couldn’t do it. I can barely handle a six-hour day these days.”

Like everyone else interviewed by the Advance for this story, Nader said there’s something of a disbelief that, after more than 1 million people have died in the United States and as others battle long-term disabilities from COVID, there remain glib or antagonistic attitudes towards public health measures.

“A lot of coffee shops on the West Coast have vaccine requirements to dine in,” she said. “It’s not a thing people are protesting in the street; they’re just taking care of each other. I wonder what makes the Midwest and South so different. It’s really weird and disheartening.”

Now, as Nader thinks of the future, of days trying to navigate life and business in a world still filled with COVID-19, she said she expects cases will, once again, rise when the warmth of the summer subsides and the colder days of fall and winter appear.

“I expect we’ll need to renew our mask requirement,” Nader said. “I’m kind of just trying to enjoy the moment right now. I’m assuming there will be another downturn. My plan is assuming we’ll go through these ups and downs [of COVID-19 cases] for at least a few years.”

‘He was the only student wearing a mask’

As local health departments and school districts have dropped mask requirements, with the last batch of mandates largely ending after the surge in COVID cases died down in February, parents have been left to navigate what they said often feels like a pandemic minefield.

Schools frequently do not provide parents with information about COVID-19 outbreaks in a classroom, as was the case with Laskey, and students wearing masks are typically in the minority.

“Thinking the numbers were going down, my kids went back to [in-person] school a month ago,” said Amanda Bennett, who lives in Birmingham and whose children in fifth and second grades have been doing virtual schooling for the majority of the pandemic.

“We knew there wasn’t going to be a mask mandate; we weren’t comfortable with that, but they’ve been out for two years and they really needed to go back,” Bennett said. “We decided they would wear a mask and go back. Now, my second-grader has COVID. I went to a Mother’s Day function at my son’s class, and he was the only student wearing a mask. Same with my other kid. They’re comfortable with being in the minority, but it’s not fairly easy either.”

While Bennett said she understands “the desire not to mask,” she would have liked to see a mask requirement remain in place for this school year.

“People are still dying from COVID every single day,” she said. “It seems like we’re going to have to live with it somehow. If masks are as effective as we’ve been told, I’d really like to see people continue to wear them.”

Parents alarmed at few to no pandemic health precautions being taken at schools said they’d like to see districts offer virtual learning options.

“We’re in a district that dropped virtual programs, which I’ve found really frustrating,” Bennett said.

If districts could provide virtual school options — particularly when case numbers rise — that would provide deep relief for parents and students, Bennett and Laskey said. Laskey, for example, ended up keeping her son in kindergarten home “for most of January because it just wasn’t worth it to expose him in the midst of everything going on.”

While both Bennett and Laskey said they’ve considered pulling their students from their respective districts because of concerns over the pandemic, they said ultimately they haven’t because of few other options.

“If we found other schools that were doing things more seriously, then we would certainly consider that, but I don’t know that there’s another school nearby that’s taking it more seriously,” said Laskey, who returned to her job two weeks ago after not working since April 2020. “The only option is to homeschool, but I don’t know with a 2, 4 and 6-year-old that I’m set up to do that.”

Sometimes when you wear a mask, people look at you, but most times they leave you alone. I could care less; I wear it because I don’t want to get COVID. I still think the mask is a very important entity; I think it can’t go away.

– Dr. Peter Gulick, an infectious disease expert and a professor of medicine at Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine

‘I get nervous saying anything because people have been so vilified’

As Bora, the medical director with the Kent County Health Department, spoke to the Advance about the benefits of masks— she still wears masks in public — the doctor noted that she felt anxious about the interview.

“I get nervous saying anything because people have been so vilified; I get nervous that whatever I say will be seen as the wrong thing,” Bora said. “I wish we could come together as a community and protect those who are most vulnerable.”

Public health workers across the state and country have faced intense criticism and death threats over COVID-19 health mandates, such as school mask requirements, and abuse and violence against public health officials have prompted a large exodus of people from the field.

In Michigan, nine of the state’s 45 health department officers have left during the pandemic, according to the Michigan Association for Local Public Health. Some of those were planned retirements, but some were because of the tensions stemming from pandemic health requirements, Michigan Association for Local Public Health Executive Director Norm Hess said in a previous interview.

Lisa Peacock, for example, resigned as health officer at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan at the end of April after anger from the public over a school mask mandate became so intense that she was afraid for her life.

Peacock, like numerous health department directors, had issued a school mask mandate after the state did not do so. While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer originally mandated that anyone in a school wear a mask during the 2020 school year, the GOP-appointed majority on the state Supreme Court struck down her executive orders in October 2020 and the Republican-led Legislature rescinded her ability to issue executive orders in the summer of 2021.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services still has the ability to implement a mask mandate, but it chose not to do so this school year, leaving local health and education administrators to act and, often, incur wrath from an angry public.

After Peacock issued her mask mandate on Aug. 27, the public outrage was unlike anything she’d experienced, the former health officer said.

“It immediately shifted to something really scary,” she said. “I received lots and lots of voicemails and threats. People told me, ‘You’re a disgusting person who hates children, and I hope you burn in hell.’”

In Berrien County, two high-ranking health department officials resigned last fall over the politicization of the pandemic. And in the county where Bora works, Kent County, the health department’s director went public with threats against him after implementing a mask mandate.

“It’s hard on our staff,” Bora said of animosity towards public health officials. “It’s navigating a whole different space than public health has ever been used to. What we’re doing is for the greater good. It’s not to hurt anybody. It truly is just to keep people as healthy as possible. We don’t have a political bent.”

Bora said she is continuing to wear masks in public places, like grocery stores.

“People will say, ‘It makes me anxious to wear a mask because nobody else is,’ so I wear a mask because I want to normalize it,” she said.

‘I don’t think you’re going to see mask requirements’

With the majority of the state’s population being vaccinated against COVID-19 and with variants of the virus being more contagious but less deadly, Ingham County Health Department Health Officer Linda Vail said it’s unlikely there will be future mask mandates or other pandemic-related health requirements.

“It would have to be a variant that was seriously concerning, evading all immunity and the vaccine,” Vail said of implementing another mask mandate. “I don’t think you’re going to see mask requirements.”

The Ingham County Health Department had mandated masks in K-12 schools but dropped that requirement in February as the number of cases and hospitalizations decreased.

While public health experts said that, in the early days of the pandemic, they were hopeful the American public would adopt mask wearing past COVID-19 and, for example, don them during flu season. The flu disappeared for a large part of the pandemic, largely because people were wearing masks, experts said.

However, the tsunami of anger over pandemic health mandates makes it unlikely that there will be a shift and more Americans will wear masks in the coming months and years, Vail said.

(My son) is one of two wearing masks at school; since omicron quieted down, there have been two wearing masks. However, this week there are four joining him; there were six COVID cases in the class last week. And we were not notified by the school; we found out through text chains.

– KC Laskey, a parent from Grand Rapids

“The public will have to decide and say, ‘Hey last flu season we were wearing masks and we didn’t have the flu; I’m going to wear a mask during flu season,’” she said. “Is the American public going to do that? I don’t know. Some will and some won’t. Unfortunately I’m guessing there will be the typical mask debates and mask wars over that.

“You’ll see people chiding people for wearing masks and chiding people for not wearing masks,” she continued. “Just leave people alone. It’s amazing to me the number of people out there that were angry that we offer a vaccine clinic.”

Similarly, Bora said she doubts there’s “much willingness to change,” even when cases will likely rise again in the fall.

“I think maybe there’s hope in other parts of the country,” she said. “I’m not sure there’s hope here. The nice thing now compared to before is people who want to protect themselves can with the vaccine.”

While Bora doubts people will change and an overwhelming majority of people will begin to wear masks, she still holds hope for that possibility.

“You never know what people’s lives are like,” she said. “I have a family member with cancer. You don’t know other people’s situations. I want people to have respect for that.”

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Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

‘He’s doing their bidding’: Critics say Republicans use Michigan auditor general for partisan attacks

When the Michigan State Capitol opened in 1879, the auditor general’s office was meant to be one of the largest spaces within the expansive new building — a space worthy of a role that’s essentially the state’s chief fiscal watchdog.
Elijah E. Myers, who designed Michigan’s Capitol in Lansing and was one of the most prolific architects of public buildings during the Gilded Age, prominently located the auditor general’s office on the first floor of the new Capitol. There, the state’s 17th auditor general, W. Irving Latimer of Big Rapids, employed a large team — including at least 68 clerks, 31 of whom were women.

It was a massive operation for the auditor general, a position meant to hold elected and government officials accountable for the way they use public funds.

Created in 1836, the auditor general was an elected position until voters approved a new state Constitution in 1963. Since then, the auditor general must be a certified public accountant (CPA) and is appointed to eight-year terms by a majority vote of the Legislature. There are no term limits for the auditor general.

The position has boasted well-known names, from Emil Anneeke, a German revolutionary who became a vocal abolitionist in the United States and Michigan’s auditor general in 1863, to Otis Smith, a lawyer and NAACP activist who was the first African American to serve in a senior state government office in Michigan when he was elected as auditor general in 1959.

The scope of the auditor general is a huge undertaking — the position has the authority to conduct post-financial and performance audits of all of the state’s branches, departments, offices, boards, authorities, and other institutions — and one that, while appointed by the Legislature, was never meant to be partisan.

But in recent years — namely during Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration — some political analysts, Democratic lawmakers and election officials said they’ve seen the office change. Specifically, they told the Michigan Advance that some Republican lawmakers are using Auditor General Doug Ringler and his office for increasingly partisan attacks meant to undermine the Democratic governor and her 2022 reelection effort.

“My view is the Republican-controlled Legislature is using the office of auditor general in a partisan way and for partisan purposes, and the auditor general is completely beholden to them,” said Mark Schauer, a former Democratic congressman from Michigan, state lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate. “[Ringler] has a conflict of interest. The auditor general is appointed by this Republican Legislature, is subject to reappointment by them; they pay his salary. He’s doing their bidding, and it’s misleading the public.”

Those interviewed by the Advance painted a picture of some Republican lawmakers misconstruing auditor general reports, such as a recent one on COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities, and repeatedly holding legislative hearings on auditor general reports aimed more at launching partisan attacks at the governor and her administration than holding government officials accountable. Some of those interviewed, including Schauer, described an auditor general’s office that is increasingly willing to participate in what they called a Republican agenda to turn what is meant to be a watchdog office into a partisan attack dog.

“I can reflect on my 12 years in the Legislature — half under Gov. [John] Engler and half under Gov. [Jennifer] Granholm, administrations of two different parties — and the auditor general’s office always played it straight and stuck to their statutory authority and responsibilities,” Schauer said. “…The auditor general under this Republican Legislature is behaving very differently.”

Thomas McTavish, who was appointed by a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, served as auditor general while Schauer was in office. McTavish was the auditor general from 1989 through 2014.

The auditor general’s office — which is now located on the sixth floor of the Victor Center in downtown Lansing, has 154 employees as of September 2021, and boasts an annual budget of about $27.1 million — strongly disagreed with this characterization and said the office prides itself on being nonpartisan and working with people across the political spectrum.

It’s outrageous. If they’re getting paid by the public, it makes no sense to me why they wouldn’t (engage with the media). It raises questions of accountability and transparency and what their motivations may be.

– David Armiak is the research director at the Madison, Wisc.-based Center for Media and Democracy

A spokesperson for the auditor general’s office, Kelly Miller, wrote in an email that in 2014 Ringler “was selected by a legislative committee composed of members of both parties and chambers equally, followed by a unanimous vote of the sitting legislators in both chambers.”

Previously, the director of internal audit for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, Ringler’s eight-year term ends in 2022 and he is up for reappointment this year. Prior to serving as the auditor general, Ringler worked in state government for more than three decades. A certified public accountant and certified internal auditor, Ringler is a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, Michigan association of Certified Public Accountants and the Institute of Internal Auditors. He previously received the “Internal Auditor of the Year” award from the Institute of Internal Auditors’ Lansing chapter.

When contacted by the Advance in January and again in March for comment for this story, Miller said the office does not conduct “live” interviews with the media. The office did provide the following emailed statement in regards to the criticism that Republican lawmakers are using the auditor general’s office for increasingly partisan purposes under the Whitmer administration:

“We are a nonpartisan office and work for the entire Legislature. Our interest is solely to fulfill our Constitutional mandate to conduct post-audits and offer opportunities for improvement that benefit those operating State government programs as well as the users of state government. Our audits often involve issues of legislative and public interest and, throughout history, have been a part of conversations in both chambers and both caucuses.

“We are independent, objective, and transparent, and go through extraordinary lengths to ensure the accuracy of OAG reports. Audits and other projects are completed based on a risk assessment, clearly verifiable information, and availability of resources. We welcome discussions with any legislator or interested party about our audit plan, audits in progress, and completed reports.

“Audits are performed in accordance with Generally Accepted Governmental Auditing Standards that include strict requirements related to conducting fair and impartial audits, including standards related to data reliability, sufficiency, and appropriateness. Further, these standards require a robust quality assurance process to ensure that facts are supported and reporting is not biased. Every three years the OAG is audited by a peer review group from other states to ensure we are following these standards and have consistently received the highest rating possible for these audits.”

David Armiak is the research director at the Madison, Wisc.-based Center for Media and Democracy. The auditor general’s office giving a blanket statement that it does zero live interviews with the media is “shocking,” said Armiak. He added that he can’t think of “any examples in any other states where [a taxpayer-paid office] would” say they refuse all interviews with the media.

“It’s outrageous,” Armiak said. “If they’re getting paid by the public, it makes no sense to me why they wouldn’t [engage with the media]. It raises questions of accountability and transparency and what their motivations may be.”

The evolution of Whitmer’s nursing home order

Not long after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan in March 2020 and nursing homes across the country faced soaring numbers of cases and deaths, Whitmer issued an executive order aimed at protecting seniors and their caretakers throughout Michigan.

The April 2020 order, No. 2020-50, included a long list of requirements for long-term care facilities — which the order defined as nursing homes, homes for the aged, adult foster care facilities, and assisted living facilities. It mandated the facilities not evict a resident for nonpayment, canceled communal dining, and created regional “hubs” that would accept COVID-19 patients from long-term care locations that could not properly care for them due to issues like a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), among other initiatives.

As part of the executive order, Whitmer said any long-term care facility that had a dedicated COVID-19 unit and an adequate amount of PPE for employees working with pandemic patients must “admit anyone that it would normally admit as a resident, regardless of whether the individual has recently been discharged from a hospital treating COVID-19 patients.”

It has been this part of the executive order, which was rescinded in May 2020, that ended up being lambasted and often distorted or outrightly mischaracterized by Republican lawmakers. Not long after the order was first issued, Republicans accused Whitmer and her administration of forcing nursing homes to accept sick COVID-19 patients and causing unnecessary deaths.

“Instead of protecting our most at-risk seniors from the coronavirus, Gov. Whitmer issued an executive order in April forcing nursing facilities with less than 80% capacity to create space to accept patients with COVID-19, regardless of their ability to care for them and isolate the spread of the virus,” state Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) wrote in a September 2021 op-ed.

These accusations — which the governor, state health officials and nursing home representatives have said are untrue — have dominated Republican-led hearings on the state’s nursing home policies, Republicans’ social media posts and op-eds in news outlets. Fueled by these accusations, federal lawmakers from Michigan asked Attorney General Dana Nessel to investigate the executive order’s impact (which she declined to do, calling the request “partisan”), and the Trump administration pushed for a federal investigation into Whitmer and other Democratic governors who they accused of covering up nursing home deaths.

Ultimately, the federal government opted not to investigate nursing home deaths in Michigan.

“It’s a Republican talking point” that nursing homes were forced to take COVID-19 patients who had been discharged from a hospital, Whitmer said on C-SPAN in March 2021.

“If nursing homes were going to take patients back after they’d been hospitalized, we had very strict protocols about how they would stay safe, and we made sure they were stocked with PPE,” the governor continued. “So there was never a mandate to receive COVID patients, despite what I think Republican communications have been.”

‘That report was something beyond anything I ever saw as a legislator’

In January, the auditor general’s office published one of its most-cited reports, one on COVID-19 deaths in Michigan’s long-term care facilities.

Republicans have been laser-focused on the issue for nearly the entirety of the pandemic, while at the same time fighting Whitmer tooth-and-nail on most of her pandemic orders meant to curb the spread of the virus. They ultimately rescinded her ability to issue such executive orders at all in 2021, after the state Supreme Court did the same.

While the auditor general’s office emphasized in its statement to the Advance that it is nonpartisan, Schauer and others said otherwise.

“The intent of the office of auditor general is to promote good and effective governance,” Schauer said. “The intent is not to provide ammo for political campaigns, and I think that’s what we saw in the long-term care reporting audit. …That report was something beyond anything I ever saw as a legislator. I think there needs to be a change in how audit reports are written, how they’re used by the Legislature. They should be a source of information and recommendations on how the state government can be improved, period.”

The report was requested in June 2021 by House Oversight Committee Steven Johnson (R-Wayland), who has publicly said COVID-19 can be mitigated with exercise and a good diet, while the overwhelming majority of health experts said the virus is most effectively prevented and mitigated by vaccines.

The auditor general agreed to do so, and on Jan. 12 issued a report that linked 8,061 COVID-19 deaths to long-term care facilities from March 2020, when the pandemic began, to July 2021. The state’s number of deaths linked to long-term care facilities is 5,675.

State Republican lawmakers immediately jumped on the discrepancy, with at least one GOP legislator calling for Whitmer to possibly be impeached. The report also became fodder for fundraising efforts by various right-wing organizations, including Michigan Freedom Fund and Michigan Rising Action.

This is despite the fact that Ringler said during a Jan. 20 joint Oversight Committee hearing on the report that the numbers differed not because the Whitmer administration was attempting to cover up deaths — but because the auditor general’s information, as asked by Johnson, included more deaths than the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is required to report under federal and state requirements.

“For the long-term care facility related deaths or linked deaths, we knew the department wasn’t tracking all of the ones that we reflected in our letter, so we didn’t feel the word ‘underreport’ was fair. We cited it as a difference,” Ringler said at the Jan. 20 hearing.

Ringler specified that the report did not show the Whitmer administration covered up nursing home deaths during the pandemic as some Republicans have falsely claimed.

“We did an analysis in black and white. We have identified what it was we did, we identified the pluses of our work, we identified some of the warts that existed from trying to do data analytics. It’s there in black and white,” Ringler said. “We said what we mean and we mean what we said.”

We did an analysis in black and white. We have identified what it was we did, we identified the pluses of our work, we identified some of the warts that existed from trying to do data analytics. It's there in black and white.

– Auditor General Doug Ringler on the OAG report on nursing home deaths

Ultimately, Michigan has had fewer pandemic-related deaths in nursing homes compared to the national average, according to a report from the Center for Health and Research Transformation, an independent nonprofit health policy center at the University of Michigan.

Despite this study, repeated legislative hearings that were held prior to the auditor general report and included testimony from nursing home representatives and state health officials that no long-term care facility was forced to accept a positive COVID-19 patient — another claim made by some Republicans. DHHS leaders described during hearings that they provided a voluminous amount of communication to GOP lawmakers about nursing home deaths, but Republican legislators never dropped the matter.

Instead, they used the auditor general report as fodder for a new round of legislative hearings by the House Oversight Committee that some Democratic lawmakers slammed as nothing more than political theater meant to politically weaken the governor and her administration in an election year.

Using the auditor general’s office to conduct a review of nursing home deaths in an attempt to attack Whitmer “over her efforts to address the worst pandemic in our lifetime” translates to the Legislature “wasting its time holding partisan committee hearings and using the office of auditor general as political propaganda,” Schauer said.

“Rather than working with the governor and enacting meaningful measures to address COVID-19, they’re actually making things harder,” Schauer said. “They’re not enacting comprehensive legislation to slow the spread of COVID-19, they’re fighting schools and, in some cases, parents trying to keep their kids safe; they’re attacking local public health officials and blocking the governor at every opportunity. I think this is unfortunate and completely foreign to what I experienced as a Democrat serving under Democratic and Republican governors.”

Johnson has led the charge against Whitmer’s nursing home order, leading hearings on the OAG report and subsequent legislation, while continuing to push the consistently rebutted idea that nursing homes were forced to admit positive COVID-19 patients.

“We will vote out House Bills 5659 & 5660 (Rep. Yaroch),” Johnson wrote in a Feb. 9 Facebook post “… This legislation requires state nursing home inspectors to receive input from nursing home staff regarding state regulations on nursing homes and to pass that information on to lawmakers. Hopefully this will keep seniors safe and ensure we never have a situation like we did with Covid positive patients being put into nursing homes.”

A spokesman for Johnson said he was “not available” to comment for this story, and emails from the Advance to Johnson requesting comment were not answered.

“If you watch the [Oversight Committee] hearings, especially with the auditor general, Johnson takes what they find and creates his own narrative and draws his own conclusions,” said state Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.) Brixie, the minority vice chair of the House Oversight Committee.

“The House Oversight Committee right now is nothing more than political theater produced by, directed by and starring Steven Johnson,” Brixie continued. “When you’re parodied on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ it’s a pretty good sign something is amiss.”

Not long after the November 2020 election, Saturday Night Live parodied a House Oversight Committee hearing that featured hours of election conspiracy theories from Rudy Giuliani, former President Donald Trump’s attorney, and Mellissa Carone, who’s now pushing white supremacy during a GOP bid for the Michigan House. Although Johnson was a member at the time, Rep. Matt Hall (R-Marshall) was the committee’s chair.

State Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) said he originally supported the Oversight hearings on nursing home deaths, which soared both statewide and in the country during the beginning of the pandemic.

“I thought that was absolutely appropriate,” Irwin said. “But what frustrates me is when you’re in an Oversight hearing, like on nursing homes, and folks continue to press lines they’ve known have been debunked and aren’t true.”

The Republicans didn’t have any kind of hearings like this when (Rick) Snyder was governor because it was all within their party, but now that we have a Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled Legislature, they’re using the Oversight Committee and the auditor general as political tools

– Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.)

Irwin said the nursing home hearings went from valid inquiries about COVID-19 deaths at long-term care facilities during the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020 to Republicans using the issue to repeatedly criticize the Whitmer administration — particularly with the auditor general’s report on long-term care facility deaths during the pandemic. A recent analysis of the auditor general’s nursing home report from Nessel’s office also noted that the report specifies the Whitmer administration did not intentionally misrepresent the number of COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities.

“In the first hearing we had about nursing homes in the Senate, [the Department of Health and Human Services] came forward,” Irwin said. Some Republican colleagues pulled out executive orders and said, ‘It looks like you’re going to force nursing homes to take COVID-positive people. [Then-DHHS Director Robert] Gordon said, ‘No, we’re not.’ Even though that was the answer, and even though nursing homes testified to say no one was ever forced to take anyone, the Republicans are still repeating that line over and over and over again. Then I hear people in the public repeating it because they’re believing these Republican legislators who are saying this.”

At some point, Irwin and Brixie said, it goes from Republicans asking valid questions about nursing home deaths to political theater that’s wasting taxpayer dollars.

“The illusion that the governor caused people to die by sending them back into nursing homes … the illusion of that is what gets the headlines, and [Johnson] knows that and that’s what he’s going for,” said Brixie.

“The Republicans didn’t have any kind of hearings like this when Snyder was governor because it was all within their party, but now that we have a Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled Legislature, they’re using the Oversight Committee and the auditor general as political tools,” Brixie went on to say. “The citizens of Michigan deserve better.”

‘They did not understand basic election administration or law’

It’s not just the nursing home deaths report that is emblematic of a shift in the way Republican lawmakers have used the auditor general’s office, election officials, Democratic legislators and policy experts said.

The auditor general’s office has conducted audits of the state Bureau of Elections throughout the years, but those audits have been relatively few and far between. For example, it conducted one in 2003 and then again in 2012.

Beginning at the end of 2019, however, the auditor general started to more frequently investigate the Bureau of Elections — which operates under the purview of the Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. She’s come under fire from Trump and other Republicans who have pushed the conspiracy theory that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

It wasn’t, as a 2021 investigation by the Republican-controlled Senate Oversight Committee, court rulings and more than 250 state and local audits have determined. President Joe Biden won Michigan by 154,000 votes, but a long list of Republicans in Michigan, including elected officials like Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford), state Republican Party Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, and Republican Secretary of State candidate Kristina Karamo have continued to falsely claim that Trump won.

Ringler’s office published a Bureau of Elections audit in December 2019 and again in March 2022.

When asked about the increased frequency, Miller, the OAG spokesperson, said the office “indicated to the Bureau of Elections in December of 2019 that we would return to audit during the next off-election year to assess” how the bureau implemented Proposal 3. Voters in 2018 overwhelmingly passed Proposal 3, which allows absentee ballots for any reason, provides the option of straight-ticket voting, and allows a citizen to register to vote up to and on Election Day.

Miller wrote “at the time of our 2019 audit, the Proposal 3 procedures had not been in place long enough, with enough post-election audits complete, for us to reach a conclusion about the processes they implemented.”

“It is our practice that if we conduct an audit at the Bureau [of Elections], we do so during a non-general election year to respect their workload during election years and to give them time to implement potential improvements before another statewide election,” Miller wrote. “They agreed with all the 2022 audit report recommendations, and we appreciate the opportunity to work with them.”

Hall cited the 2019 Bureau of Elections audit as the reason he introduced House Bill 4127, which would have required voters with unknown birth dates in the state’s Qualified Voter File to either sign and complete a pre-addressed postcard along with a copy of their driver’s license, state ID or birth certificate or present those documents in-person to their local clerk. Earlier in April, Whitmer vetoed that legislation along with House Bill 4128 — which would disqualify records in the state’s qualified voter file if an individual who hasn’t voted since the November 2000 election or has a placeholder date of birth failed to sign a postcard and provide their current address to their local clerk.

In her veto letter, Whitmer said that while she would “be proud to sign into law common-sense election reforms that strengthen our democracy,” these bills failed to do that.

“Instead, they would burden clerks and voters while increasing costs to Michigan residents,” she said. “I am therefore returning them to you without my approval.”

They did not understand basic election administration or law, and yet they were auditing the election audit.

– Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum

For the auditor general’s most recent Bureau of Elections report — which found no evidence of fraud and said local and state officials underwent accurate audits of the 2020 election — some election officials and Democratic lawmakers noted unusual, and, according to Nessel, even potentially illegal, tactics to conduct the audit, like physically going into local clerks’ offices and reauditing the 2020 election audits they’ve already completed.

“They’ve ventured into territory they don’t have statutory authority for,” Brixie said of the auditor general’s office. “… They went into the field and went to local clerks; they don’t have the statutory authority to do that.”

When the Advance asked in October 2021 why the OAG audits were being done after Nessel raised concerns, Miller said via email, “Our audit team is gathering information necessary to assess the effectiveness of the Bureau of Elections’ procedures and training. Our work is being done in accordance with the Attorney General’s opinion.”

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said when two representatives from the auditor general’s office came to her office to reaudit their 2020 election results, “They asked me to do a hand tally of the ballots, which is part of the standard audit we already do.”

“They were unable to accurately count the vote themselves,” Byrum said. “You take out all the ballots, and my staff would read it, the local clerk would agree or not agree who the vote was for, then they’d place it in a pile. While they were doing that, [a representative from the auditor general’s office] was making hash marks. Those hash marks weren’t balancing. We said, ‘Your hash marks aren’t balancing,’ and he said, ‘Eh, close enough.’”

Byrum said she does “not recall having an interaction with the auditor general’s office before they were turned on to the November 2020 election.”

“Even during my time in the Legislature I don’t have any memorable interactions with the auditor general then, either,” said Byrum, who served as a Democratic House member from 2007 to 2012.

But her interactions with the auditor general’s office this time around grew “increasingly frustrating.”

“They did not understand basic election administration or law, and yet they were auditing the election audit,” Byrum said. Ultimately, it’s these kinds of efforts — the constant questioning of the 2020 election results — that are chipping away at the public trust in the state’s and country’s elections, Byrum said. And, she said, it seems to be an outright attack from Republicans against the Whitmer administration in an attempt to defeat the Democratic governor in the November 2022 election.

“I think because there are Democrats at the top of the ticket, this is a way for Republicans to attack those public servants,” Byrum said of the constant auditing, including the one by the auditor general. “They’re not just attacking the Secretary of State and the local and county clerks; they’re attacking the integrity of our elections.”

An auditor general spokesperson said the office did not have a comment regarding Byrum’s statements.

Is change coming for the Oversight committees?

Major changes to the House and Senate Oversight committees could be on the horizon, and these revisions would likely address a large part of the politicization of the auditor general’s office, Irwin said.

Irwin and Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) announced at the end of March they want to create a permanent, bipartisan and bicameral Oversight Committee.

The eight-person panel would have two Democrats and two Republicans from the House and two Democrats and two Republicans from the Senate. It would have a rotating chairmanship — meaning both parties would have control of the chair an equal amount of time. Currently, both the Senate and House have an Oversight Committee, and the majority party — now the GOP — has more seats on the committees that are meant to investigate a wide range of problems pertaining to the government and identify how to solve them. The majority party also controls the chairmanships.

Senate Joint Resolution O would create the committee and is tie-barred to Senate Bill 997, which details the committee’s powers. Because the resolution would amend the state Constitution, it needs at least two-thirds of each legislative chamber to be passed into law — a high bar.

This change, Irwin explained, would likely lessen at least some of the partisan politics surrounding the auditor general’s reports because it would not solely be the majority party deciding on what to hold Oversight Committee hearings and who can testify at them. The Oversight Committees have routinely held hearings on the auditor general’s investigations, which have often become highly partisan, critical of the governor and her administration, and, as with the Giuliani hearing, something of a media spectacle.

If you don’t like what the auditor general has said, you’re going to say it’s partisan and I think that’s wrong. I’ve heard all these reports, and I think they’re very straightforward and honest.

– Rep. Jack O’Malley (R-Lake Ann)

Oversight Committee leadership also has been directly involved in auditor general investigations. Johnson, for example, requested that the auditor general review the COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities, which the OAG did.

“The efforts of the auditor general … are seen as very partisan,” Irwin said. “When folks see one party directing these efforts, it’s seen as overtly political. If we had a bipartisan committee, you’ll be much more likely to see public interest. It drives greater legitimacy, and it gets more attention for the work of the auditor general. And they deserve attention.”

Irwin also said that “very conservative members are trying to find something to attack in the administration and they’re asking the auditor general to go after that.”

“I think that’s driven by the fact that we have a split government; we didn’t see the same requests from Republican members during the Snyder administration,” Irwin continued. “We didn’t have Oversight hearings on [the Flint water crisis] for months and months. Because of the leadership of Sen. McBroom, we ended up having Oversight hearings on Flint. They were late but very much needed.”

Brixie backed the proposal from Irwin and McBroom, saying the House Oversight Committee could be conducting crucial work for the public but instead is being used as a bullhorn for Johnson.

“There’s more to oversight than just looking for headlines and politicizing things, but the chair of the committee in the House is using the [office of the auditor general] for political gain,” said Brixie.

Brixie noted that while she is the Oversight Committee’s ranking Democrat, “nothing I’ve requested has ever been put on the agenda” and she doesn’t “know what’s on the agenda until it’s posted because the chair doesn’t have the common courtesy to communicate with me before the meeting.”

Brixie also said she has requested experts speak at Oversight Committee hearings, but Johnson routinely denies those and instead amplifies the voices he wants at the hearing.

“We’re not doing our job,” Brixie said. “We’re failing the people when we show a biased, one-sided view of everything. We’ve given voice to unproven fringe elements of the pandemic. The anti-vaccination testimony we’ve heard has been deeply, deeply disturbing.”

However, Rep. Jack O’Malley (R-Lake Ann), a member of the House Oversight Committee, praised Johnson’s chairmanship, saying he has “done an excellent job allowing discussion in our committee.”

“As far as partisanship, Rep. Johnson and Rep. [David] LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids), those two have a really good working relationship,” O’Malley told the Advance. “Come watch our committee; I think we’re fair.”

“I think that right now the flavor of the month is to scream partisanship, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true,” O’Malley added. “… I may not agree with [with Democratic lawmakers], but do I think they’re all there because they want to do good for their constituents and the people of Michigan? Yes.”

While covering Oversight Committee hearings and viewing additional footage of hearings, Advance reporters have witnessed Johnson repeatedly cutting Brixie off during questioning or not allowing her to speak.

“This chair has this extreme power, and everything is up to the chair,” Brixie said. “That’s how it works in the House. I’ve not had anyone I’ve asked to testify be allowed to testify at a hearing ever. I’ve been asking for residents impacted by the pandemic or health experts, and he hasn’t allowed a single person to come and testify.”

Brixie emphasized that it’s not the fact that Johnson is Republican that is the problem, but rather how he uses his chairmanship.

“There are lots of good chairs of committees on the Republican side; it has nothing to do with the party of the chair,” Brixie said. “It’s about how we treat people when we have power.”

The House Oversight Committee right now is nothing more than political theater produced by, directed by and starring (Chair) Steven Johnson.

– Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.)

Irwin said he’s optimistic the proposal from he and McBroom will pass because it’s “not as mired in the politics of the moment.” In other words: If Republicans become the minority party — which could be more likely to happen with political lines drawn by the new independent redistricting commission — they will have the comfort of knowing they still will maintain some power in the Oversight Committee, as is the case if the Democrats continue to be the minority party.

“When it comes to transparency, accountability, fighting corruption, that’s something we can come together on,” Irwin said.

A spokesperson for McBroom did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story, but the Republican lawmaker said in a press release on the new committee proposal that “due to term limits and the frequency of varied partisan power in Michigan, it is clear we need stronger safeguards to ensure consistency in government oversight.”

“I hope this will leave a mechanism in place to protect the people from unrestrained, partisan bureaucracy and executive branch power,” McBroom said.

Not everyone, however, is convinced that a bipartisan, bicameral Oversight Committee is needed. O’Malley said he believes the current committees are doing a competent job. He also said partisanship is not playing a major role in the Oversight Committee hearings over OAG reports and in general.

“Is the system we have broken?” O’Malley asked. “I don’t think so.”

“There’s not just some omnipotent chair deciding every last detail,” O’Malley said, responding to criticism in other media reports that the Oversight Committee chairs hold inordinate amounts of power.

“The auditor general — that’s a bipartisan group,” O’Malley continued. “Their reports, they are just people saying, ‘Here’s what we’ve found. They’re the referees, and they’ve done a pretty good job.”

O’Malley went on to further defend the auditor general from claims of partisanship.

“If you don’t like what the auditor general has said, you’re going to say it’s partisan and I think that’s wrong,” O’Malley said. “I’ve heard all these reports, and I think they’re very straightforward and honest.”

‘A change in political mores’

As to why Republican lawmakers are politicizing the office of the auditor general, it goes beyond wanting to defeat Whitmer in the next election, said Schauer, the former congressman.

It has to do with a “shift at the national level.”

My view is the Republican-controlled Legislature is using the office of auditor general in a partisan way and for partisan purposes, and the auditor general is completely beholden to them. (Auditor General Doug Ringler) has a conflict of interest. The auditor general is appointed by this Republican Legislature, is subject to reappointment by them; they pay his salary. He’s doing their bidding, and it’s misleading the public.

– Former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer (D-Battle Creek)

“Donald Trump is the leader of the Republican Party,” Schauer said. “The rules and ethics have changed. We can see plenty of examples on how top Republican elected leaders in Michigan have tried to change election law to the detriment of our basic democracy.

“I think their behavior reflects a change in political mores, and it’s a big picture problem,” Schauer continued. “Ultimately, it comes down to the behavior of the Senate majority leader, the speaker of the House, their leadership and committee chairs and how they comport themselves. This kind of behavior never occurred when I was in office under several Republican leaders. These Republican leaders are redefining legislative behavior in ways that are dangerous to our governor and our democracy, and it has to change.

“Ultimately, it will require the voters to hold them responsible.”

As far as the auditor general’s office goes, Schauer said it could “take a principled position, and I wish they would to not engage in these reviews that are for political purposes.” But, Schauer said, “I know the power of the majority leader in making these decisions and overseeing these appointed officials, and the auditor general is responsible to them.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Brixie said it’s “this hyperpartisan environment that we’re in” that has led Republicans to use the auditor general for partisan purposes.

That, she said, could change with “the new district lines that are not gerrymandered” because the redrawn districts could result in “more moderate people getting elected, rather than extremes on both ends of the political spectrum.”

Brixie also criticized term limits as another part of the problem: Politicians are not in Lansing long enough to develop meaningful relationships with both members of their party and the other party that could result in less partisanship, she said.

“The take-home message is we’re not doing the work of the people here,” Brixie said. “It’s simply political theater, that’s what our [oversight] committee hearings are. And it’s paid for by taxpayers.”

While policy experts, lawmakers and election officials said they’re not surprised to see increased politicization of a government role at a time of hyperpartisanship and political division, they stressed it must be addressed, both in order to keep government functioning and to maintain or increase public trust in government institutions and elections.

“I look at the current Legislature consistently trying to undermine the governor and politicize its role with the governor,” Schauer said. “Inherently, these are political beings but they have important work to do, and that is to solve the problems for the people of Michigan and to help make their lives better and make the state a better place. Using the office of the auditor general … to accomplish their own political objectives is a disservice to Michiganders.”

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

As political threats intensify, Michigan Dems look to ban guns at polling places

As experts warn of increased political violence in the coming elections and GOP lawmakers push voting restrictions, Michigan House Democrats on Wednesday announced a package of nine bills aimed at keeping guns away from polling places and expanding ballot access.

“Before and during the Civil Rights movement, guns were used to harass and intimidate Black people who were simply trying to exercise their rights,” said state Rep. Stephanie Young (D-Detroit), sponsor of a bill that would prohibit the possession of a firearm in a polling place and within 100 feet of the entrance to a polling place on Election Day. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing that again today with extremists who believe only certain people should vote. This is not the America that folks fought and died for 60 years ago. We cannot allow a few bad actors to spoil our elections with threats of violence.”

Young, Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) and Rep. Lauria Pohutsky (D-Livonia) gathered on the steps of the Michigan Capitol in downtown Lansing to announce the bills, which are expected to be formally introduced on Thursday.

The bills would:
  • Allow for nine days of in-person early voting.
  • Create a process for clerks to notify voters if their signature doesn’t match the one on an absentee ballot application or absentee ballot return envelope.
  • Allow voters to request email or text updates to track their absentee ballot.
  • Codify the ability to request an absentee ballot on the Secretary of State’s website.
  • Require the state to reimburse municipalities for the costs of legislative special elections.
  • Prohibit petition signature gatherers from making intentional misstatements to convince a voter to sign a petition.

The legislation — which comes after House Democrats in November introduced another voting rights package that has received no backing from Republicans nor legislative hearings — will likely face resistance from GOP lawmakers, who have pushed to restrict access to voting in Michigan.

Last week, House Republicans approved a number of proposals aimed at restricting ballot access — including requiring physical signatures on absentee ballot applications, barring clerks from sending absentee ballot applications to voters unless they’re specifically requested, and banning private funding to help run elections. Republicans previously pushed similar bills this past fall, which were vetoed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Koleszar said these efforts “are meant to gum up the workings of our elections” and would “disenfranchise older and disabled voters.”

“I fear what is truly driving the so-called ‘reforms’ is suppressing turnout and creating barriers between Michiganders and their fundamental constitutional freedom to vote,” Koleszar said of Republican efforts to restrict voting access.

Following the governor’s vetoes, GOP legislators have also turned to a petition drive, Secure MI Vote, in a bid to circumvent Whitmer and restrict voting access. Among other voting restrictions, the Republican-backed initiative would limit clerks from utilizing nonprofit properties, such as churches and other places of worship, that were previously donated as polling spaces unless clerks paid for them. Places of worship accounted for 20% of Michigan polling sites in the 2020 election.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) did not return a request for comment on the newly announced bills, and a spokesman for House Republicans did not comment and said he would ask if a GOP lawmaker could respond. No one did.

Pohutsky, who is sponsoring the bill that would allow for nine days of in-person early voting, said her legislation would help to ease wait times around voting.

“With each passing election, we see images of Michiganders waiting in line for hours simply to exercise their right to vote,” Pohutsky said. “In the year 2022, this is inexcusable, but it can be prevented with common sense legislation. My bill in this package would allow early in-person voting starting the second Sunday before Election Day.”

“As legislators, we should be doing everything in our power to eliminate barriers to the ballot box and ensuring that every eligible voter can cast a ballot and make their voice heard,” Pohutsky continued. “Long lines on Election Day disproportionately impact people who already face barriers to voting: working people, people of color, the disabled, and our senior citizens. Rather than passing legislation to make these obstacles even more insurmountable, we need to be working to empower our constituents to exercise their right to vote.”

If Pohutsky’s bill passed, Michigan would join 19 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing early in-person voting.

Young’s bill barring guns from polling places comes after Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in 2020 attempted to stop people from openly carrying firearms on Election Day. A Michigan judge struck down Benson’s order in October 2020.

“There’s a big difference in branches of government,” Young said. “[Benson] tried to do it, but we’re the legislature and so what’s what we do: we propose legislation. So we took [Benson’s] suggestion and now we’ve made it into a bill that we hope will get the light of day and hopefully end up in front of us on the House floor.”

Young’s legislation comes at a time when political violence is on the rise, and experts have warned that threatening rhetoric supported by Republican candidates could escalate to violence. Additionally, 40% of Republicans, 41% of independents, and 23% of Democrats have told pollsters violence against the government can be justified.

“Let’s be clear: this is not about our constitutional right to own guns,” Young said. “But it is about the right of every Michigander to have a peace of mind and to feel safe when going and exercising their right to vote. We already have laws in place that limit where people are allowed to carry firearms — places like churches and daycare facilities and sports arenas — so there’s nothing crazy or malicious about this legislation.”

Young went on to further emphasize the point that this bill would in no way ban people from owning guns.

“Nobody’s telling you you can’t have your gun,” Young said. “… I’d just like to say if you know you’re going to vote, and you own a gun and regularly carry a gun, then just make the conscious decision to leave that at home, perhaps for the 15 minutes that it’s going to take to cast your ballot.”


Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

Michigan secretary of state seeks investigation after receiving 'credible allegations' of election equipment tampering

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced Thursday evening that she asked state police and Attorney General Dana Nessel to investigate “multiple credible allegations” her office received this week that at least one unauthorized third party illegally tampered with voting equipment in northern Michigan’s Roscommon County and Richfield Township.

The party reportedly “gained inappropriate access to tabulation machines and data drives” used in Richfield Township and Roscommon County, which Benson noted could require the equipment to be replaced at the taxpayers’ expense. Richfield Township and Roscommon County are located in central northern Michigan, approximately a two-hour drive from Lansing.

State law restricts access to voting equipment to qualified personnel. It is a felony to “obtain undue possession of [a]…voting machine,” according to state law.

Questions remain on voting machines found tampered after northern Michigan twp. break-in

“Protecting the integrity and security of our elections, especially from those who use lies and misinformation to deceive Michigan voters, is a critical component of defending democracy in this moment,” Benson said in a press release. “Michigan law is clear about the security threats that emerge when anyone gains unauthorized access to our election machines or technology, and I will have no tolerance for those who seek to illegally tamper with our voting equipment.”

A Benson spokesperson did not specify when the tampering may have occurred but said “we have no reason to believe the unauthorized access was gained prior to the 2020 election.”

Shanon Banner, a spokeswoman for Michigan State Police, confirmed Friday that they are “investigating the allegation.” A spokesperson for Nessel said the attorney general’s office has “received the referral and have no additional information to share at this time.”

An individual who answered the phone at the Roscommon County Clerk’s office said that “due to pending investigation, there is no comment.” The Richfield Township Clerk’s office is not open on Fridays and did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition to requesting the investigation from law enforcement, Benson, a Democrat, sent a letter to all of Michigan’s 1,603 county, city and township clerks on Thursday regarding the possible security breach and what to do if they become aware of an incident in which an unauthorized third party has attempted to gain, or been given improper access, to voting equipment.

I write to remind you of your responsibility under the law to work with the Bureau [of Elections] to prevent future risks and address any that are outstanding,” Benson wrote in that letter. “If you are aware of any incidents in which an unauthorized third party has attempted to gain or has been given improper access to voting equipment, you have a duty to report this immediately.”

In that letter, Benson also thanked clerks for their work.

“As we work to prepare for safe and secure 2022 elections, I know that, as the local and county officials running Michigan’s elections on the front line, you are aware of the importance of safeguarding voting equipment, and protecting the integrity of our election systems,” Benson wrote. “I also know that pressure has mounted on all of you in recent years, and yet you continue to demonstrate your dedication to the security and integrity of Michigan elections.”

Roscommon County, a Republican area that voted for former President Donald Trump in the November 2020 election, is located about 65 miles south of Antrim County — where a quickly corrected mistake on Election Night paved the way for national conspiracy theories that Trump won the election.

The 2020 election was not close, and Biden defeated Trump by more than seven million votes and won the Electoral College 306-232. In Michigan, Biden beat Trump by 154,000 votes.

While Republicans, including Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, have continued to promote the false idea that Trump won, numerous investigations have proved otherwise. An investigation by the Republican-controlled Senate Oversight Committee, court rulings and audits have upheld the results of Michigan’s 2020 election.

Benson’s office noted the Antrim County incident in its Thursday statement. Following the uproar around Antrim in the 2020 election, a judge in northern Michigan allowed Trump supporters to access tabulators and data in the county. That was used to create a report that made false allegations of election fraud.

The report was thoroughly debunked by multiple election experts, but not before it was cited as the reason for the federal government to seize tabulation machines in a draft executive order of former president Donald Trump,” Benson’s press release said. “Another submission in the same case in Antrim County claimed to include an image from an Elections System and Software tabulator, the vendor that provides tabulators to all Roscommon County jurisdictions.”


Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

New constitutional amendment could nullify GOP-led efforts to restrict voting in Michigan

A new ballot initiative filed with the Michigan Secretary of State Monday could nullify Republican-led efforts to restrict voting and enshrine a series of voting rights — including barring partisan interference in future elections — in the state’s constitution, election experts said Monday.

The “Promote the Vote 2022” ballot initiative would amend the state constitution to improve both security and access to the polls, including expanding early voting and allowing more time for military members to cast their ballots, voting rights leaders said at a Monday press conference. The initiative comes from Promote the Vote, the coalition behind Prop 3, a constitutional amendment Michigan voters from across the ideological spectrum passed in 2018 and which created no-reason absentee voting and same-day registration.

“Michigan voters have been clear: They want accessible and secure elections, which means being able to make their voices heard at the ballot box and being confident that their vote will be counted,” Christina Schlitt, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan, said during Monday’s press conference. “This proposal takes great steps toward modernizing our elections and protecting our freedom to vote. And importantly, this proposal will ensure that elections will be determined solely by the voters of Michigan.”

The Promote the Vote initiate comes after President Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Following that definitive defeat, Republican party leaders and legislators — including some who won in the 2020 election — have promoted conspiracy theories that Trump did not lose and that massive election fraud occurred. Despite there being more than 250 state and local audits demonstrating the 2020 election was secure, local, state and national Republican figures have continued to call for election “audits” and have introduced legislation restricting voting rights.

These efforts, and specifically the GOP-backed “Secure MI Vote” ballot petition restricting voting, have alarmed Democratic lawmakers and voting rights activists across the state and country.

In a one-on-one interview with Whitmer in November, the governor told the Advance that she anticipated a counter-ballot measure would be coming.

“Every Michigander deserves the right to have their voice heard as they exercise their constitutional right to vote in a safe and secure election,” Whitmer said. “We have robust election protections in place. Strong, effective voter ID laws are on the books and they work. We just had the most secure, accessible high turnout election in our state’s history [in November 2020].”

“We’ve got to take a stand here because our democracy really is on the line,” Whitmer continued. “That’s not hyperbole. The only thing that is standing in the way of efforts to undermine our secure elections, the only thing right now, is my veto. And so we’re encouraging citizens to decline to sign any effort that makes it harder for Michiganders to vote.”

The Promote the Vote initiative would:
  • Guarantee voters nine consecutive days of early voting before an election
  • Provide state funding for prepaid postage on absentee ballots
  • Allow additional time for military and overseas voters to submit ballots
  • Allow voters to request absentee ballots for all future elections instead of having to ask for an absentee ballot before every election, as is now the case in some counties
  • Permit voters to continue to vote without identification, provided they sign an affidavit to verify their identity, as is allowed now
  • Ensure that the outcome of state elections is determined solely by the votes cast by Michigan voters by directing the state Board of Canvassers to certify election results and clearly establishing the Board of Canvassers is responsible for certifying the results of an election
  • Ban political parties from participating in post-election audits and mandate that only election officials can conduct such audits. Precinct delegates and officers from national, state and local political parties would not be allowed to conduct an audit.

If the Promote the Vote initiative garners enough signatures — about 425,000 before July 11 — to be placed on the ballot in November and is then approved by voters, it would essentially cancel the Secure MI Vote”petition.

Even if the Secure MI Vote petition — which election experts have said could result in hundreds of Michigan cities and townships losing all or some of their polling places — is passed by the GOP-led state Legislature, it would be superseded by the Promote the Vote effort because the “Promote the Vote” initiative would result in a constitutional amendment.

Should the GOP-backed Secure MI Vote petition garner more than 340,000 signatures, state law permits the Legislature to vote on it and also bypass a veto from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The Secure MI Vote petition would then never be brought before voters in an election. Among other voting restrictions, the GOP-backed initiative would limit clerks from utilizing nonprofit properties, such as churches and other places of worship), that were previously donated as polling spaces unless clerks paid for them. Places of worship accounted for 20% of Michigan polling sites in the 2020 election.

– Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians

“We can’t ignore the fact that election interference is part of our reality right now,” Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, said in an interview following Monday’s press conference. “…We’re protecting elections in Michigan from any sort of interference that we’re seeing groups like Secure MI Vote try to do to either actually change election results for future elections or decrease people’s confidence in our election administration.”

The initiative announced Monday would, if passed, go into effect for the 2023 primary election. The Secure MI Vote initiative would also go into effect by the 2023 election, unless the vote received backing from two-thirds of the state Senate — which would allow it to take immediate effect in 2022.

The Secure MI Vote has been backed by Republicans and does not appear to have the necessary backing of two-thirds of the Senate, which is split 22-16 in the GOP’s favor.


Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.